Not all birds are created equal for the birder. In the birdosphere, that means that some species are a heck of a lot more difficult to see than others, or just look nicer. Others might be the one and only rep for a family, and/or be avian oddities (the ones with no close relatives tend to be weird in a cool way). In the tropics, since most forest species are naturally scarce, it’s a major birding bonus to see certain birds whose rarity is legendary. In Costa Rica, one of those choice species is the Lanceolated Monklet.
This tiny puffbird just loves to be elusive. I mean, you can bird a supposed good site for the monklet for years and never hear a peep. You can hang out along streams in dense forests for days and wonder if the monklet actually lives there. You can look as much as you want at the exact spots where they have been seen and never, ever see one. Such is the Lanceolated Monklet, a true blue anti-birder bird.
It just hates to be seen and that’s why we have no idea how many live in Costa Rica. We know where they have been identified but beyond that, forget about any guesses on numbers. They just don’t vocalize enough and are far too un-obvious for any degree of proper estimation. So, if you do happen to see one, it’s a cause for personal celebration. The other day, the monklet luck cards finally fell into place at one of my favorite sites, Quebrada Gonzalez. I guide birders there on occasion and always prepare them for the site by saying that the birding is challenging, the canopy is high, mixed flocks can pass through super frustratingly fast, BUT, you always see something uncommon and SOMETIMES, you see something super rare.
We got the super rare in the form of the monklet the other day (FINALLY). This was a huge “finally” because I have been looking and listening for this species, right at that site, for more than ten years. Yep. Always wondering where it was because it has been recorded there in the past and should still be there. Well, it certainly is because we had perfect looks:
It even caught a bug!
The funny thing about this bird is that I might not see it there again for years. I hope not but that’s kind of how it is. After finding a couple monklets at Lands in Love in 2013, several attempts to re-find them have been failures. Where do they go? I suspect that they are still around but just don’t call or sing, and pretty much hide in plain sight. Keep your eyes peeled when birding the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, a Lanceolated Monklet might be looking at you!
“La Selva” is the term that birders and biologists use for the O.T.S. La Selva Biological Station. Although there are lots of places to watch a lot of birds in Costa Rica, La Selva is one of the better known sites on the block. Biologists, birders, and people who happen to be particularly enthused about neotropical biodiversity have been going to this haven for decades. The first visitors had to arrive by boat to a station surrounded by large areas of primary forest. Oooh, that sounds nice and what an amazing place it must have been!
Check out Slud’s notes on surveying birds at La Selva during the 50s to get an idea of what the avifauna was like when the surrounding area was mostly forested. I’m not sure if he mentions it, but others have told me that Great Jacamar was regular, Golden-crowned Spadebill and Black-faced Antthrush were very common, and even Harpy Eagle was present. Since those glory days for birds and healthy rainforest ecosystems, deforestation just outside of La Selva has taken its toll on the species that live within the boundaries of the station. Although the forests in the reserve are intact, larger areas of contiguous forest are probably needed to sustain healthy populations of various animals that live there. Throw other edge effects into the mix, including an overabundance of Collared Peccaries that have a detrimental impact on the forest understory (by devouring everything), and the place doesn’t exactly mirror Slud’s experiences (nor others who worked there during the 70s and 80s).
Most understory species have become very rare, and various other bird species have declined but there is hope. Yes, there is hope and you can see it when you bird the entrance road. Not too long ago, this part of La Selva was young second growth but bird it nowadays and you can see a lot of forest species. Those regenerating areas do indeed provide habitat for a lot of birds and one sees a lot more forest species compared to 15 or even 10 years ago. It also shows that if we let enough forest come back in other areas next to La Selva, in time, it may once again support similar numbers of species and individuals. It will take a while, but the sooner we can get started, the better. Since that would also involve reforesting of private land used for farming Teak and other cash crops, the solution is far from straightforward but there are solutions, they are just harder to find.
Ok, so now for some birds. While guiding the other day, after a morning at El Tapir, I decided to check out the La Selva entrance road to see if we could find some of the lowland targets needed by my client. Despite it being the true blue middle of the day, it was pretty darn good!
We saw most of our birds just hanging out near the stream as bird species eventually vocalized and/or passed through their territories.
To see a list of the birds that were identified, here is a link to the eBird list for that birdy pause during the day. I would love to survey that are at dawn to see what shows up!
It’s the day after guiding at El Tapir and it’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago, I was looking at White-ruffed Manakins and listening to the whistles of hidden wood-wrens. Such is the big old contrast between a computer desk and the humid, dim interior of rainforest. There weren’t any crazy highlights but we had some nice birds nonetheless. The antithesis of a highlight was the odd absence of the Snowcap. Odd, because I have never not seen that fantastic hummingbird at El Tapir. I hope they come back soon and have not returned to the dream dimension to which they obviously belong.
No Snowcaps, but we did see some other nice birds, one of which is easy to hear but is a menace to try and see. That toughy was a Nightingale Wren and oh how nice it was to come in and hang out a few short meters from our feet.
If you hear someone whistling out of tune in foothill rainforest, you are listening to a Nightingale Wren and not a short, bearded fellow with a pointed red hat (although some claim to have seen those beings in the forest as well).
Other “good” birds we saw inside the rainforest were Spotted Antbird, Pale-vented Thrush, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Tawny-crested Tanager, and a bunch of White-ruffed Manakins.
The manakins were feeding on fruiting Melastomes. Several other birds paid visits to those important trees too but no hoped for cotingas or random Sharpbill.
Back out in the hummingbird garden, we were treated to one of the other top candidates for bird of the day, a male Black-crested Coquette. We got to watch that fine little bird as much as we wanted along with a couple of Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymph, and Violet-headed Hummingbirds among the over-abundant Rufous-taileds.
I will be at El Tapir again within a week for another Snowcap vigil. I hope they come back from their vacation from parts unknown.
For birders in North America, a quail-dove is far from familiar. Certain other dove species might be as normal in the yard as the family dog but not yee quail-doves. In the official ABA area, the main dove/quail that we hope to see is the one named after an island and seeing it is no easy task. The Ruddy is also possible but that would be an even bigger, rarer prize.
Even if quail-doves did breed and thrive in Florida, they would still be a challenge because that’s the quail-dove M.O. no matter where you yield your bins. Unlike the happy go lucky Cooper’s Hawk prey item known as the Mourning Dove (now you know why they are always mourning…), or the bold and permanently unphased Rock Pigeon, the quail-doves are opposed to the limelight. Heck, given their skulking behavior, they are pretty much opposed to any light. Like miniature fangless vamps, the quail-doves stick to the shade like its going out of style and give new meaning to “agoraphobia”. To see them, one usually has to sneak through dense forest to glimpse one as it scurries off the trail in search of deeper, darker thickets. As one may surmise, they are typical pains but every once in a while, a quail-dove manages to ignore its birder frustrating genes and come out into the open.
It’s a rare occurrence indeed but can happen, especially on rainy and/or very cloudy days (don’t forget that these terrestrial doves are related to vampires…). It also seems more likely to happen in places where they are used to people. One such locale is the Monteverde Reserve. Bird those trails and you have a pretty good chance of glimpsing a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove. Or, you might even get lucky with the super friendly quail-dove that hangs around the parking lot!
This Buff-fronted friend shows up now and then at the edge of the parking lot and maybe on a regular basis. It still likes things quiet and stays away from people but the open, friendly, and attention getting attitude (for a quail-dove) is downright astounding. To see this bird, just keep checking the edges of the parking lots at Monteverde, especially when few people are around. The one we watched would have stayed longer if a motorcycle hadn’t ridden up to within one meter of it (although I couldn’t blame it for scooting back into the forest at that point).
A week ago, a large percentage of us humans celebrated the start of another new year with best wishes and the usual countdown. It’s hard for me to take it seriously because calendars are totally subjective but it’s always a nice excuse for a party as well as the spreading of good vibes. For birders, that major calendar change also represents a chance to start counting birds once again to see how many you can identify over the next twelve months. It also acts as a time to review the birds you would like to see and tell yourself, that yes, this year, I am going to see that damn Black Rail, a Boreal Owl, or some other evasive avian creature.
As for myself, I haven’t made any plans or statements for 2015. Sure, I would like to see a Spotted Rail but I’m going to be Zen about the whole thing and try for new birds when I can (not too many for me to try for in Costa Rica and the Masked Duck can of course va fa in ….). I will also keep track of the birds I see but think I will do so with eBird. I can’t even recall what my first bird of the year was but no matter because I saw a bunch of good ones between the 2nd and the 4th. During those dates, I was guiding/birding on Cerro de la Muerte and stayed at Myriam’s Cabins.
Although the diversity was naturally low, quality was high with most species being highland endemics.
Up on the paramo, after a bit of searching, we eventually connected with the junco, wren, and finch (Peg-billed).
Over at Georgina, searching the primary forests failed to find the jay but we did get the quetzal in the afternoon. Luckily, good old serpent tail sang a couple of times and a female flew in. After bad looks, a male zipped through the canopy and perched for walk away views. Yee haw!
Not long after the quetzal, I got lucky with a glimpse of a pygmy-owl flying overhead. Unfortunately, branches obscured everything but its tick-tocking tail and then it was gone. Frustration began to set in until the bird gave us a break, started calling, and eventually came close. After hiding out in the bamboo, one more bit of whistles brought it right in front of our faces.
More walk away views ensued after seeing this tough endemic surrounded by Fiery-throated Hummingbirds.
Those were the two stars of the show but we also got most other species including Buff-fronted Quail-Dove on a likely nest at Myriam’s, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, Spotted Wood-Quail, and super close looks at several other cool birds.
Despite a good deal of focused searching, we dipped on the pewee, jay, and saw-whet but found out that yes, the saw-whet is seen regularly around Myriam’s (!), and that Myriam’s also has a trail through excellent primary forest. On a disturbing note, the forest understory looks dry and rather open, and the forest looked pretty dry overall. This is not good for rainforest ecosystems adapted to getting several meters of rain per year.
Back on the good news front, Myriam’s also had nice action at the feeders, good food, and great, friendly service. Next birding stop for me might be Monteverde or maybe El Tapir. I’m not fretting though, because it’s always going to be birdy!
For biophiles in Costa Rica, you can’t help but be treated to avian and other highlights on a daily basis. Just spend some quality time in tropical forest, pay close attention to your surroundings, and “stuff” will appear. That said, I still have some personal birding highlights from 2014 that merit a mention. They are, in no particular order:
- Birding around La Gamba: White-crested Coquette, Golden-naped Woodpeckers at feeders, and lifer Veraguan Mango are always a wonderful way to start the year. The birds just kept appearing at the Troppenstation and near La Gamba, I would love to go back.
- Updating birding apps for Panama and Costa Rica: I was pleased with this because both apps now in the iTunes store have a respectable 700 plus species, and more search functions, including searching by name. Hopefully, the Android versions will have the same updates soon.
- Birding with the guys from 10,000 Birds: It rained the entire time but it was still fun to hang out with and see birds with Corey and Mike.
- Hudsonian Godwit: Documenting the second record for Costa Rica turned it into the best bird of the year. Not to mention, this was also a memorable, 20 plus shorebird day that included Rufous-necked Wood-Rail and good times with Josh Beck, Kathi Borgmann, and Susan Blank.
- Maroon-chested Ground-Dove: This super elusive dove treated us to a show on Irazu thanks to gen from Ernesto Carman.
- Some other new country birds for the year: Honestly, I’m not sure if I got any lifers other than Veraguan Mango but I did pick up several new birds for my Costa Rica list including Redhead, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Baird’s Sandpiper, Red Knot, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew (finally…), Veery, and Yellow-breasted Chat (another finally…).
- Great food and service at some nice lodges: Guiding brought me to several nice locales with excellent service and cuisine including Rancho Naturalista, Finca Luna Nueva, and Luna Lodge.
- More than 650 species: I identified by sight or sound, more than 650 species in Costa Rica. Very pleased with that and might still pick up one or two more before January 1st!
- Birding with friends old and new: Corny sounding but true. Memorable, good life days sharing birding with Susan, Robert, Johan, Ineke, the Birding Club of Costa Rica, and many other people.
Looking forward to birds in 2015 and the Biggest Day ever. Say hello if you see me in the field!
The Catarata del Toro is a massive, scenic waterfall at the edge of Juan Castro Blanco National Park. if you are wondering where that is, think central Costa Rica, the mountains between Poas and La Fortuna. If it helps, it’s also near Bosque de Paz. If you aren’t headed to Bosque de Paz, it’s a bit of a detour off the route between Arenal and Sarapiqui but here are some reasons why the detour is worth it:
- A couple of loop trails through good cloud forest: Although I have only birded on them twice, I think there is a lot of birding potential. The elevation is around 1,200 meters, the forest has a lot of big trees (indicators of quality habitat), and the forest is connected to the national park. On my limited time on those trails, I have had Highland Tinamou, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Pale-vented Thrush, and various common middle elevation species. I bet a lot more could occur.
- Hummingbird feeders: This is the main reason for paying a visit. Sometimes, they can be slow but during rainy weather and, when hummingbirds are hungry, the Colibridae action is out of sight.
- Crazy, close shots of hummingbirds:
- Black-bellied Hummingbird: Not a whole lot of accessible sites for this one.
- Coppery-headed Emerald: Common, near endemic (one population was found in Nicaragua).
- Black-breasted Wood-Quail: They used to come into the garden but one of the owners told me that she thought their recent absence might be related to Coatis showing up now and then. She is probably right but the wood-quail should still be in the forest. I wonder if Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas are also around.
Not to mention, the owners also provide good service, can provide meals, and also offer 3 simple rooms. Sounds like a good place for a lone birder or small group to stay and check out. If you do, please send me a report to publish on the blog.
Birding Field Guides Releases New Version of Birdwatching App for Costa Rica
For Immediate Release: December 15, 2014
The first birding app for Costa Rica is a digital field guide that includes photos, sounds, text, and range maps for more than 700 species of birds.
San Jose, Costa Rica – A new version of the Birding Field Guides app for Costa Rica became available in the iTunes Store on December 12, 2014. This is the only digital field guide app in the iTunes Store that is completely focused on the bird species of Costa Rica.
Costa Rica has been a pioneer for ecotourism since the early 1990s and continues to be a major destination for birders and people in search of outdoor adventure. As birding has increased in popularity as a hobby, many have paid a visit to Costa Rica in search of the near-mythical Resplendent Quetzal, dozens of glittering hummingbirds, exotic toucans, macaws, parrots, and literally hundreds of other bird species. This small Central American country appeals to birdwatchers and other tourists on account of its stable, democratic government, stunning scenery, and protected areas that host a wide array of wildlife.
This recent version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app has been updated with new images, information, and range maps for more than 700 species, and vocalizations for more than 500 species. Along with a suite of new species, sounds, and improved images, version 3.0 also has a search by name function along with other easy to use search functions.
Michael Mullin, head of programming for Birding Field Guides, expects that the new images, species accounts, vocalizations, and search functions will make it easier to study before the trip, and identify birds while watching them in the rainforests of Costa Rica.
He said, “I’m excited about this new version because we have improved the search functions, images, vocalizations, and now have more than 700 species on the app. We listened to what our customers had to say and made changes to improve their experience. I am looking forward to hearing how this new version enhances time in Costa Rica for beginning birders, experts, and birding guides.”
This app is currently available for version 4.3 or higher iPod Touch, iPad, and iPhone devices, and will be updated for 2.3.3 and higher Android devices in early 2015.
About Birding Field Guides
Birding Field Guides was started in 2012 and develops birding and nature-related apps and products for digital devices. For more information, please visit http://birdingfieldguides.com.
The first thing that comes to mind when I reminisce about the recent Arenal Christmas Count is rain. At this time of the year, cold fronts often come on down to Costa Rica. Unlike other visitors from the north, cold fronts aren’t so welcome because they bring constant rain. While the forests on the Caribbean slope do need tons of falling water (they really do), if you don’t happen to be an amphibian, constant rain is kind of annoying. It’s pretty self explanatory but to give an idea of what it’s like, imagine light rain followed by heavier rain followed by light rain and repeat that process for several days and nights.
Such very wet weather is par for the course in the Arenal area in December so we couldn’t have expected less. However, despite the precipitation, we still managed quite a few bird species on our Finca Luna Nueva route, mostly during times of light rain and breaks in the weather. Such breaks lifted our hearts and gave birth to sighs of relief until the pressure dropped and the rain fell again (along with our drowned, soggy hopes). Ok, enough complaints, now for some highlights!:
- Birding with the guys from 10,000 Birds, Tomohide Cho, Ismael Torres, and Johan Weintz: Mike Bergin and Corey Finger a la 10,000 Birds were visiting Costa Rica and we did the Arenal count together. Lots of fun before, during, and after the count with these guys in our search for lifers and shelter from the rain. Tomohide takes lots of great pictures of birds, Ismael is the resident guide at Luna Nueva and Johan is a guide.birder from Cartago. This was our team and I am grateful for spending the day with them.
- Cinnamon Woodpecker: First, we had one so close that it seemed like it wanted to help out with the count. Three or so more during the day showed that Luna Nueva is a good spot for this beautiful species.
- Great Curassow: Regular around Arenal and at Luna Nueva but always a highlight. Although we didn’t get the barred morph and honorary count bird at Luna Nueva, we did see one of those semi-psychadelic creatures at Arenal Observatory Lodge on the following day.
- White-fronted Nunbird: Mike Bergin gets the prize for spotting this target! The quality forests around Arenal are good for this formerly common species but it’s still easy to miss.
- Hooded Warbler: Uncommon in Costa Rica and a year bird so it was a highlight for me. We did not re-find the much rarer Nashville that Mike, Corey, and Ismael had seen the day before the count!
- Keel-billed Motmot: We got one from the tower just before lunch! Great looks but too far for a good shot with my camera.
- Magnificent Frigatebird: Weird stuff goes on during cold fronts and this was one of them. Nope, not even near the coast and no other team happened to see this juvenile fly past during the count!
- Song Wren: Another good one, we got looks up on the trails at the Texas A and M Soltis Center. We did super good for wrens before and after the count too, with 10 species seen and Plain Wren the only heard only (yes, great looks at the almost invisible Nightingale Wren at Arenal Observatory Lodge).
Big misses included Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, owls, and other birds that probably didn’t call because they were sick of the rain. I forget how many species we got but I think it was around 130 and that’s not bad, not bad at all for a day of birding!
Whether putting the focus on birds or just checking out nature’s details in the backyard, there’s always something to see. Keep that open mind and you still go birding during the post-breeding doldrums or when the rain pours down. But let’s face it, it’s always going to be easier to get more excited about birding in places that always offer a chance at something new, rare, or mysterious. That’s pretty much the score for tropical rainforests. The natural complications of those ecosystems make them unpredictable and always capable of delivering a rare experience. Frustrating? Maybe, but frustration can be easily pushed aside by the excitement of the unknown.
This was why I was excited to do a day of guiding/birding at Virgen del Socorro last week. Although I have been there dozens of times over the years, I still never know what I am going to run into, and I know that there is always that chance of seeing a Lovely Cotinga, finding a fruiting tree with Red-fronted Parrotlets, or even espying a Solitary Eagle. Any of that trio is unexpected and would indeed make for a rare, red letter day but it’s always possible! Our group wasn’t so lucky on our recent trip but still managed some quality birds.
The unlucky factor was the ironic sunny day. Ironic, because it’s beautiful weather yet dismal bird activity. A good day for scenery but not many birds. I always wonder where they are because the difference between avian activity on a cloudy day and during tropical, sunny weather is uncanny. So, we had a hot, sunny, fairly birdless day in the middle elevation forests at Virgen del Socorro. Nevertheless, as I mentioned, we still got onto some nice birds.
A first stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up an American Dipper.
We didn’t spend much time at Cinchona because we were going to stop there in the later afternoon anyways but still got in your face looks at a Green Thorntail.
Down in Virgen del Socorro, our first stop turned up Collared Trogon and a fruiting tree with Black-mandibled Toucans and Emerald Toucanet. The realization that it was a Lauraceae raised hopes for a cotinga or other uncommon frugivore but despite a lot of careful checking, the tree was cotingaless. I would have loved to have left a camera there to record the birds that came and went for the rest of the day because it was ideal for a Lovely Cotinga.
In that same area, we also saw a few tanagers and got excellent looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher.
After that, the sun took over and birds quieted down. Black Phoebe was the only bird at the bridge but at least the sunny weather brought out the raptors including hoped for White and Barred Hawks, Short-tailed Hawk, and a few Broad-winged Hawks.
The corner by the bridge is a good area for Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Saturday was no exception. We got really good looks at that tiny thing while Crimson-collared Tanagers, Golden-olive Woodpeckers, and Sooty-faced Finch called from the understory.
The mixed flock failed to appear over in the better forest on the other side of the river but we got nice looks at flocks of Vaux’s Swifts and listened to Striped-breasted, Bay, and Nightingale Wrens. Further on, we went up and out of the canyon and head to the good forest just past Albergue del Socorro. Although it was naturally quiet at 2 p.m., fruiting Melastomes produced Black and Yellow Tanagers, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Green Honeycreeper, and Hepatic Tanager.
To leave the area, we took the road to San Miguel instead of backtracking through Virgen del Socorro. This gave us Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck at a small reservoir, and a glimpse at a very promising birding area with an overlook of extensive forest, and access to foothill forest. I’m looking forward to checking that site on some fine morning to survey it!
We finished the day at Cinchona accompanied by Emerald Toucanets, Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald, and a few other birds.
If you want to look for Lanceolated Monklet, tanagers, and other middle elevation species at Virgen del Socorro and are coming from the Sarapiqui area, take the road to San Miguel and go left at the police checkpoint. After crossing the first big bridge, take the first road on the left and down into the canyon. If coming from Cinchona, head downhill and watch for the short sticks with red and yellow markings on the right that mark the entrance to the road into the canyon. This is just before the road makes a sharp left to head down to a big bridge