One of the most common observations (aka complaints) that birders new to Costa Rica make is related to the sad paucity of raptors. I am definitely sad to admit that this is a valid view because unlike the weedy fields and woodlots far to the north, we don’t see very many raptors on a regular basis. The lower number of raptors is related to higher diversity (and thus lower populations per species due to a higher degree of interspecific competition), and too much substandard forest habitat (edge effects not being conducive to the ecosystems needed to sustain large, healthy populations of forest-based raptors). You see, in Costa Rica, at least half or more of the raptors in the country are very much adapted to intact forest. They don’t do as well in places where there is just as much cow pasture and ag. Fields as rainforest because those habitats just don’t provide enough of the type of food needed for birds like Great Black Hawk, hawk-eagles, Semiplumbeous Hawk, White Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and so on.
This is probably why birds of prey and a higher diversity of raptors are seen when birding in places with large areas of healthy forest (such as the Osa Peninsula, Braulio Carrillo, Rincon de la Vieja, and so on).
However, even if you happen to be hanging out with your binos in fantastic forest, not nearly as many raptors will appear if it rains. While that wet weather can result in views of hawks and falcons perched on an emergent tree, it doesn’t compare to the birds that take to the skies in sunny weather. In general, that aspect of raptor watching in Costa Rica is kind of similar to Europe and North America because this is when all sorts of species can take to the skies.
Last weekend, I got the chance to compare birding during dry and rainy weather at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez. It was sunny on Friday and rained for nearly all of Saturday and guess which day was better for raptors? Yes, Friday at Quebrada Gonzalez was good for birds of prey as well as for several other non-raptorial species including killer looks at Black-crowned Antpitta, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Red-headed Barbet, antvireos, antwrens, Lattice-tailed Trogon, White-crowned Manakin, and several tanagers including more Blue and Golds than I have ever seen there in one day.
But, back to the raptors- on Friday, we started off the day with a Barred Hawk,
saw one or two King Vultures through the trees, and got great looks at an adult Ornate Hawk Eagle in flight. We also saw a couple of Broad-winged Hawks but they are pretty much par for the course during the winter months in Costa Rica. In the afternoon, we also lucked out with totally satisfying views of a Semiplumbeous Hawk on the Ceiba trail. It was nice to finally connect with this uncommon species at Quebrada because I had heard of reports from the Ceiba and Botarrama trails. As with some other, more lowland inclined species, the Semiplumbeous doesn’t seem to be regular on the Las Palmas trail. So, that was sunny Friday and we weren’t even focused on looking for raptors.
On rainy Saturday, although we connected with several busy tanager flocks at El Tapir, and saw a fine Ocellated Antbird, we didn’t see anything flying in the rain. However, we still managed nice perched looks at King Vulture and Double-toothed Kite.
The raptor happy sunny weather on Friday also reminded me of guiding a week before then at Cinchona and Poas. That was also a very sunny day that resulted in very close looks at Barred Hawks right from the Café Colibri (the name for the Cinchona hummingbird spot), White Hawk, Bat Falcon, Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk eagle (probably Ornate but too far away to say).
In a couple days, I am headed to Palo Verde- a totally different, more open habitat that might give me some nice looks at open country raptors like Harris’ Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, and Snail Kite, and hopefully a lifer rail and duck. Wish me luck!
Since moving to Costa Rica, I have had to think more about where to go birding in Costa Rica than what to pack for visiting the land of hummingbirds, quetzals, and amazing numbers of Clay-colored Thrush. However, I used to do quite a bit of birding travel and exploration and will now combine those experiences with living here to suggest some things to bring. In addition to the obvious quality waterproof binos, toothbrush, and other usual travel items, here is what I would stick into the baggage:
- A hat: Ok, so I would wear this up there on top and not actually pack it but whatever. Ss with birding trips just about everywhere, a hat is part of the uniform. Unless you stick to night birding, a hat makes it easier to search the skies for specks that could be birds (although see the next suggestion), offers some protection from the monster tropical sun, and can be used to swat that rare biting fly or mosquito. Most of all, it makes you look like an official birder, especially if you wear a wide-brimmed hat (I need to get one of those). Dude, you gotta promote birding, so don’t be shy about showing your birding colors!
- Blue blocking, UV blocking sun glasses: Steve Pike, a birding, fantastic bird photographer friend of mine who has traveled to some major far off places opened my eyes to the importance of sunglasses. They can’t be any old shades but ones that block off some of those rays and make it much easier to look up into a bright sky or out over oceanic waters.
- Quick dry, lightweight clothes: Get some of those futuristic lightweight, quick dry shirts and trousers to spend more time outdoors in comfort.
- A notebook: No, not the electronic kind but a good, old fashioned field book if you will. Get a waterproof one if possible in case you need to sketch a bird in the rain or feel like getting poetic about your experience in the rainforest.
- Protection for devices: As we move forward on our frightening journey to official robothood, we love to bring more electronic devices while traveling far from home. They do come in handy but remember that Costa Rica is a place splashed with a bit of rain (as in several feet a year of splash in some places) so be prepared and come to town with lots of drying packets in ziplock bags, put the cameras in a Pelican case, and don’t be shy about bringing a dry bag.
- The field guide: There were two (and the Garrigues and Dean is a true field guide in terms of size and use), and now that the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is available on Apple and Android platforms, there is another!
- The knowledge that road signs are a rarity: Whether driving or not, don’t expect to know where you actually happen to be. Costa Rica is a small country anyways, so just go with the flow, be guided by your birding sense, and use a GPS navigator thing.
- Bug repellent: Biting insects aren’t too much of a problem in Costa Rica but it’s always good to be prepared.
- Sunblock: Bring the powerful stuff to avoid melting under the rays of the tropical ball of fire up there in the heavens.
- A high tech head lamp: Take advantage of modern technology and bring a powerful, lightweight headlamp to find the night birds and see weird nocturnal bugs and whatnot.
And as a caveat…. What not to bring:
- Rubber boots: You can if you want and I know they are classic jungle fashion but most eco-lodges will lend you a pair where needed.
- A bad attitude: Never good for any situation…
- Too many expectations: This means expecting to see every species. It just doesn’t work that way in the tropics but don’t worry, you will see a lot of cool stuff and will see more species, the more time you spend in quality habitat. It also helps to hire the services of a local birding guide.
- Small, travel binoculars: Avoid these to avoid major frustration, especially when other birders are using their solid optics to marvel over the colors of that Red-legged Honeycreeper or appreciating the glittering plumages of crazy, pugnacious hummingbirds.
- A machete: It’s cool, rural locals have them, and somewhat resembles a Chinese short sword (which is why I want to carry one around) but you don’t really need it. Leave it home if you bought one on that latest trip to Oaxaca or Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
I hope this list helps you have a fantastic trip and hope to see you while birding in Costa Rica!
The first month of 2014 has come to an end so I decided to do a “round up” of blog posts and other birding news in Costa Rica.It’s not complete by any means but with hope, it will be entertaining, and give a heads up on what to expect while birding during the next few weeks. So, since the winter has been going crazy up north we might as well start with weather:
Weather in Costa Rica: Almost the same as always. This means that it’s warm and tropical but we could still use more rain. It looks like this dry season is set to be especially dry and that doesn’t bode too well for birds, plants, and other life forms adapted to a much wetter climate. Many seasonal wetlands have already dried out in the Pacific lowlands so it could be hard to find some waterbirds. At the same time, this also means that if you do find a lagoon or two, it could be filled with storks, spoonbills, ibis, and other aquatic species. This may also explain why I saw a Glossy Ibis fly past the Tarcoles bridge on January 14th, as well as sightings of Green Ibis in Cartago and maybe even near La Gamba.
Migrants: It appears to be a good year for migrants from the north. On just a few trips to the Poas area this winter, I have already had sightings of two different Townsend’s Warblers, Daniel Martinez reported on seeing a Cape May Warbler in Cartago in the forums of the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica site, and others have seen Cedar Waxwings! Not to mention, Robert Dean just told me today that he has seen a Golden-cheeked warbler in his neck of the woods (the Monteverde area) and may have glimpsed a female Black-throated Blue! Sure, I understand that these birds might be non-issues for North American birders but they are exciting for birders from other parts of the globe, Costa Rica included. I, for one, could go for adding the waxwing and those warblers to my Costa Rican list.
The Black and white Owl at Cerro Lodge: It doesn’t seem as reliable in the past so have a back up plan and check the Orotina plaza. If that doesn’t work, try watching for them at any “street lamps” next to humid forest in the lowlands and foothills of both slopes. This owl species is more common than most people think but might not come out and play until after 8 at night.
David Segura has been posting some fun birding quizzes. This young Tico birder hasn’t written much else because he has been out birding.
Seagull Steve over at Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds has some typically entertaining posts about lots of cool birding stuff and some of his fav. sightings from Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio guide Roy Orozco wrote an informative post about birding at El Copal- great place although I was sorry to hear that they missed the cotinga (I have missed it on my two trips there as well).
January posts from my blog:
I have been doing more birding than writing so have had let time to translate thoughts into the written form but I did manage four posts for the month
I started off with a post of my 2014 hopes and birding expectations,
posted about some recent perspectives of birding at Carara National Park,
talked about why I like to patronize the Cinchona hummingbird cafe, and
finally posted about an exciting weekend of birding in the La Gamba area.
Costa Rica Birding app
It has more than 570 species and I hope we can have 600 in the next update.
Our trusty developer has also optimized it for iOS7 devices, the iPad, and it’s now also available for Android devices in the Amazon store!
Learn more about this birding app here.
Hope to see you in the field while birding in Costa Rica!
It’s no secret that Costa Rica has a healthy abundance of great birding just about everywhere one goes but but some places stand out for the avian attractions they offer. One such place is the general vicinity of La Gamba, a small village in southwestern Costa Rica. I have had some nice birding there on previous trips but after the most recent journey to La Gamba, I left the area convinced that it’s one of the best birding sites in the country. I don’t really think that there’s one best of the best when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but I would say with conviction that La Gamba ranks up there in the top five sites for Costa Rica. Here are the reasons why:
- Serious biodiversity: Yeah, lots of places in Costa Rica are packed with a fine array of creatures but La Gamba still stands out. The rainforests in the area support a huge number of tree species and that high biodiversity is also shown by the birds. For example, after doing an eBird tally of species from one long day in the area that didn’t even include any degree of forest interior birding, my eyes briefly bugged out when I noticed a species total of 152! Yes, the biodiversity is serious and that means that you keep seeing new birds the longer you stay.
- Good array of habitats: More habitats means more birds and in the La Gamba area we have some fine old rainforest in Piedras Blancas National Park, birdy gardens at Esquinas and the Tropenstation, open fields and seasonal wetlands with their respective bunch of birds, flowering trees and bushes that bring in the hummingbirds, and one heck of a birdy riparian zone.
- Endemics: Since La Gamba is located in the southwestern Pacific endemic bird area, it provides a home for species like Charming Hummingbird, Spot-crowned Euphonia, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and the others. All seem to be more common there than at many other sites too. Not to mention, it’s also a good place for Black-cheeked Ant Tanager, one of Costa Rica’s only true endemics. I heard several singing their dawn song on this recent trip and am sure we would have seen them if we had done more forest birding.
- Uncommon, local birds: The habitats at La Gamba are particularly good for a variety of uncommon species. So many “good” birds can be seen there that this could be the deciding factor for it being one of my major faves. For example, here’s a short list of uncommon species that are regular around La Gamba-
Great Curassow: They walk around the gardens of the two main lodges like happy turkeys. Wild, tame, and super easy to watch and that’s how we like them!
Uniform Crake: Seen regularly on the lagoon trail.
Blue-headed Parrot: We had several good looks at these.
Band-tailed Barbthroat: This uncommon hummingbird was fairly common in the gardens of the Tropenstation and along the road.
Veraguan Mango: Look for this fine target when the Erythrinas are in bloom. I had at least two of this lifer on the recent trip!
Red-rumped Woodpecker: Uncommon but regular and we had it right at the main bridge over the stream!
Olivaceous Piculet: Had nice looks at this one.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher: We had at least 4 of these sveldt birdies.
Slate-colored Seedeater: Regular in lodge gardens and along streams.
Red-breasted Blackbird: Not uncommon in rice fields in several parts of Costa Rica but always a favorite.
There are lots of other good birds to see as well!
- Hummingbirds: When the plants are in bloom, this area can be really good for hummingbirds. Heliconias in the gardens attract 4 species of hermits, Charmning Hummingbird is common, and a nice variety of species come to the flowering Erythinas. We had at least 13 species during our stay, including 2 to 3 White-crested Coquettes!
- Vagrants: This is a good areas for vagrant species from Panama. Although we didn’t see them, other trips in the past have turned up things like Wattled Jacana and other species could also show up (like maybe that first Yellowish Pipit for the country). On our trip, a couple of the participants had a Mangrove Cuckoo and are pretty sure they saw a vagrant Green Ibis!
- Access: To be honest, the best birding is usually up there in forests that we can’t get to so it’s a major bonus when you can drive to a site with a small car. La Gamba is very easy to get to- just take the turn to Esquinas Lodge and Golfito from the highway and drive on in to the Troppenstation or Esquinas.
- Lodging: Speaking of those two places, Esquinas Lodge is pricey but has great service, excellent food, and nice lodging. The Tropenstation research station is cheaper ($66 per person, includes 3 meals) and rooms have two bunk beds each but it’s clean, comfortable, and has good food. I would also go back for the feeder action! Esquinas is closer to better forest but trails into the rainforests of the national park can also be easily accessed from the Tropenstation.
- Proximity to other good birding sites: Didn’t see Yellow-billed or Turquoise Cotingas at La Gamba? No problem, there’s a good chance for both at Rincon de Osa or even along the road to Golfito. You could also drive an hour or so to the rice fields near Ciudad Neily to try for Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, crakes, and other good birds. Or, if you feel like going further afield, the middle elevation habitats around San Vito are also within striking distance.
So, to sum things up, La Gamba is easy to get to, it’s extremely birdy, easy to bird, and offers a chance at tons of good species! I can’t wait to get back to that area.
I like birding in Costa Rica just about every place I visit but I prefer to patronize some places over others. I like it when a place of business protects habitat, makes attempts to work in a manner that is sustainable with their surroundings, and of course offers the opportunity to see a variety of birds. It’s even better when you can get close looks and photos of uncommon species without having to pay a high admission fee. To me, such places are birder friendly because they make it easy for everyone to experience birds and not just the people who pay to take a tour or an entrance fee. One such place is the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.
This gem of a site has been a classic hotspot for years and continues to act as a place where visiting birders can have a coffee and sample delicious country Tico fare while being entertained by the antics of Coppery-headed Emeralds, Violet Sabrewings, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, and other choice species.
What makes this place even more special is that the original cafe was destroyed in the 2009 Cinchona earthquake.
The family rebuilt on the same spot as the two story structure that used to play host to Crimson-collared Tanagers and Red-headed Barbets. Although the habitat isn’t as good as it used to be, the forest that was knocked down by the quake is growing back, is bringing in more birds, and should continue to improve with time. One of the owners told me that he has been seeing Red-headed Barbet more often and on recent visits, the feeders were buzzing with activity.
The cafe doesn’t charge for watching birds but do accept contributions. If you visit, please leave a hefty donation for the feeders and this bird loving family. It makes for a perfect lunch stop when driving the newly paved Varablanca- San Miguel road and plenty of other non-feeder birds can also show up. On recent visits, in addition to fine looking feeder birds, I also had Sooty-faced Finch, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Black-faced Solitaire, Keel-billed Toucan, White-crowned Parrot and other species.
Other spots just down the road can turn up some nice mixed flocks, raptors, and who knows what else. The next time I visit, I hope I can bring them some material to help promote birding at the cafe. If anyone in the family has a mobile device, I will also give them a copy of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
To visit the Cafe Colibri, watch for it on the east side of the main road between Varablanca and San Miguel (the road that goes by the La Paz Waterfall gardens). It is situated between the waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.
Carara is usually on the list of birders visiting Costa Rica so in thinking of a topic for this week’s blog post, I decided to write a bit about the area, especially because I did some guiding there over the past three weeks. Since all of my birding/guiding around Carara has taken place on the Laguna Meandrica trail (the river trail), around Tarcoles, and on the Guacimo Road, I will focus about those places.
The River Trail: So, it’s actually the Laguna Meandrica Trail but everyone calls it the “River Trail” in English. However, it’s good to know the real name for the trail because there’s a new and improved sign at the entrance. Look for the sign and entrance 2 or 3 kilometers north on the highway from the main Carara HQ. The entrance is tough to see because it’s a short, steep drive down to the parking area. Someone is usually there to watch the vehicles, make sure to pay him at least 2,000 colones because he doesn’t receive any salary (don’t leave the car unless someone is there to watch it!).
Although this trail is famous for its good birding, to be honest, it hasn’t been as outstanding as during the days of yore. It’s still good but as with some others parts of the country, there seem to be fewer overall birds. That subtle change seems to have coincided with drier weather. So, this means that it might just take longer to find the birds while birding the River Trail. However, species missed there can also be found on the HQ trails, so combining the two should work out. That said, we still had some good birds like King Vulture, an antswarm with Bicolored Antbirds, Black-faced Antthrush, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Gray-headed Tanagers. I heard a few Royal Flycatchers on two visits, Rufous-tailed Jacamars were showing well, and more than one fig was fruiting. Keep an eye on those figs for cotingas and who knows what else! Although we didn’t see any cotingas at the fruiting trees, on one day, we did glimpse two stunning male Yellow-billed Cotingas around 9 AM!
As far as the oxbow lake goes, the water is much lower and there were few birds present but Boat-billed Herons were still there, and who knows, maybe the more extensive marsh vegetation will result in some unexpected species.
Carara HQ: I haven’t been on the HQ loop trails yet this year but they should be good for Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, and the usual set of rainforest species. As for the HQ itself, there are new bathrooms (small but they function), and the booth for buying tickets is obvious. The park is open from 7 to 4 for the high season. Guides can also be hired there but not all of them are great for birds.
The Bijagual Road: This is the dirt road that goes by Villa Lapas and accesses forested hills at the edge of the national park. Road work is still going on and results in some waits but it doesn’t seem to affect the birding that much. This road always holds promise for birding although it can be pretty quiet during the hot and sunny hours. The up side of birding the road then, though, is having a good chance at King Vulture and raptors like White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. Rarer species can also show up and flowering trees might turn up White-crested Coquette (I had one there in late December).
Cerro Lodge: This birding hotspot has been pretty good although I haven’t seen as many parrots or parakeets doing morning flybys (although plenty of macaws). A male Yellow-billed Cotinga is still showing in the morning in distant mangroves (use a scope and look for a bright white dot), Black and white Owls show up but haven’t been as regular, and Crane Hawk is still showing up once in a while. Lots of vegetation is growing up, and there is plenty of Porterweed attracting hummingbirds. Also, the rooms now have air conditioning!
The road to and from Cerro Lodge is still good for birding and continues to be reliable for a wide variety of species including Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-naped Parrot.
The Guacimo Road: Although I haven’t spent much time there yet this year, the dry forest birding seems to be similar to past visits with lots of birds in the riparian zone (including Long-tailed Manakin, Olive Sparrow, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and others), and White-throated Magpie Jays, Double-striped Thick Knee, and others species on other parts of the road.
I haven’t been on the mangrove boat tour yet so can’t say much about that but people who have taken it recently have seen thick-knee, Southern Lapwing, and American Pygmy Kingfisher among other bird species.
That’s about it for recent birding around Carara, the only thing else I can say is bird around there for a few days and you will see a lot!
Hope to see you in Costa Rica in 2014! Get ready for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app available in the iTunes store and the Amazon app store for Android phones.
We are now officially in what a fair portion of humans on the planet refer to as “2014″. Yep, 14 years after the milenium and if you haven’t been to Costa Rica yet for birding, what are you waiting for? The birding is great, the weather is great, and there’s a quetzal with your name on it!
So, whether you are on your way to Costa Rica or are itching to plan a trip, here are ten things to expect in 2014:
1. A smooth ride between Varablanca and Cinchona: Finally, the road is paved! Ever since 2009, this fine birding route was wacked up pretty bad by the Cinchona earthquake. It has been slowly paved ever since and the last stretch was finally completed a month ago. I’m looking forward to checking it out because I have had a lot of fine birding on this road and am sure that it holds a few hidden surprises here and there. It’s also kind of close to home and is on our Big Day route so that helps too.
2. Great bird photography at the Nature Pavilion along with a big sit done at that site: This rather new birding site in Sarapiqui continues to be one of the best places for bird photography in the country and keeps getting better as the owners plant more trees on their property. I plan on doing a big sit on their deck to see how many species show up. Not sure when I will do it but I can’t wait!
3. An Ochraceous Pewee: It’s about time for me to actually see this uncommon, high-elevation endemic. I have heard them a couple of times but have yet to see one! I keep putting it off because a day trip up to Cerro de la Muerte is kind of a long one for me. The bird is way overdue though so I need to start planning a trip now.
4. A major Big Day: For those whom I have guided, it’s no surprise that I plan on breaking the Big Day world record. A lot of factors need to fall into place but it can be done in Costa Rica and I hope this year is the one. Like Eric B and Rakim, I’m thinking of a master plan and with better preparations and scouting, it just might happen.
5. Lots of hummingbirds: You have to bird with your eyes closed to not see lots of hummingbirds when birding Costa Rica. Those little glittering sprites are pretty easy to see in many parts of the country, and especially so at a variety of sites with feeders and flowering bushes that are planted to attract them.
6. Want antbirds? Go to the right sites!: If you want to see more antbirds, bird more often in quality forest. The Pacific slope species are regular in places like Carara National Park and the Osa Peninsula, but the best sites for Caribbean slope species seem to be the Arenal- Monteverde forest complex (especially at sites around Arenal, at and near Pocosol Research Station, and Lands in Love), and the northern forests (Laguna del Lagarto and nearby).
7. More raptors: Who doesn’t want to see more raptors? I hear about the apparent scarcity of raptors from birders than any other bird related commentary and they are right, raptors are rather scarce in Costa Rica. It has to do with them being at the top of the food chain, competing with other raptor species, many needing large areas of quality forest, and way too much edge habitat. This is why one sees more Gray and Roadside Hawks, and caracaras than other species. However, look long enough and in the right places and things like hawk-eagles, Gray-headed Kite, and other rainforest raptors eventually show.
8. Lots of antswarms!: Ok, so this is every neotropical birder’s wish but that’s what I’m hoping for. Best chances are places with high quality forest (hmm, seems to be a theme there…). For those who are unaware, the beauty of a bunch of hungry Eciton burchellii ants is that they attract all sorts of birds. In addition to those cool little antbirds, you can also get woodcreepers, tinamous, forest-falcons, foliage-gleaners, antpittas, ground cuckoos, and who knows what else coming in to the swarm.
9. Using the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app: The newest version has more than 575 species and is now available for Android in addition to being available in the iTunes store. We should be able to push the number of species above 600 in 2014.
10. A book on birding in Costa Rica: I’m working on it…
Hope to see you in Costa Rica!
According to the “western calendar”, the end of the year is nigh. It’s time for us listers to count up the birds we have identified over the course of 12 months, time to run out and see a few more for those doing a Big Year, and time to get ready to party if you want to celebrate the annual calendar change. Although I may have to attend just such a party, I would just as rather look for owls or stay home and sleep because the New Year doesn’t really mean anything to me. As for a Big Year, although I have been doing a sort of Big Year, it’s a relaxed one so by definition, I can’t really run out to get bird 660 today or tomorrow. However, I have counted up the bird species I have identified since January 1st of 2013 (659, my best year in CR yet) and will pick out a “best bird” from that list.
Since few birds really stand out as being the “best of the best”, I think I will talk about some highlights and then settle on a winner from that list. Before I start, I will say that this was a really good birding year for me in Costa Rica with several key lifers, lots of great birding, and many memorable days of guiding. I hope that this list of ten best birds encourages more people to come to Costa Rica for birding and get you psyched for your trip if you already have one planned for the near future! So, without further ado, here goes and in taxonomic order:
1. Red-billed Tropicbird: Not a lifer but a first for my CR list and a good bird to get for the country. Saw a juvenile on a Sierpe-Cano Island boat trip. Yee-haw!
2. Red-footed Booby: This is one of those bird species that had been busy burning a hole in my unchecked bird list for quite some time. I had hoped to glimpse one on the Sierpe-Cano Island boat trip and managed close looks at several! Black and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels from that trip get an honorable mention.
3. Pinnated Bittern: It’s hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago when I got my lifer big neotropical bittern at Cano Negro! Another list burner.
4. Crakes: I got 3 lifer crakes this year and if you have ever looked for those darn things, you know that a trio of them in a year is quite the achievement. They were a Yellow-breasted Crake from Cano Negro, an Ocellated Crake from the Buenos Aires, Costa Rica savannahs, and a Paint-billed Crake from a rice field near Rio Claro. If you cared to know, the Yellow-breasted was a typical small shy marsh bird, the Ocellated a fricking spotted mouse, and the Paint-billed a miniature gallinule.
5. Bridled Tern: A lifer always makes it onto a best bird of the year list!
6. Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo: Yes, it was a heard only on the Manuel Brenes road but even a heard one of these is pretty awesome.
7. Oilbird: Major, major target at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge and although I have yet to finish the list, I expect that this weirdo will come out on top.
8. Lanceolated Monklet: I may have spoke too soon because this miniscule puffbird is another fantastic find for Costa Rica. I saw one and heard another at Lands in Love. I hope to go back and get some photos of this great little bird.
9. Bare-necked Umbrellabird: This endangered, amazing creature will always make it onto my best bird of the year list if I happen to see one. My only one for 2013 was a male near San Luis Canopy while guiding a lucky client in that area.
10. Blackpoll Warbler: I kind of hate to say it but this was one of the best because it’s a rare vagrant to Costa Rica. However, the bird seen on during the Bosque del Rio Tigre Christmas count really shouldn’t trump things like Yellow-billed, Snowy, and Turquoise Cotingas, Three-wattled Bellbird, Mangrove Hummingbird, Rufous-necked Wood Rail, Blue and Gold Tanager (and most tanagers), most quail doves, both macaws, and all owls save the Unspotted Saw-whet so I mention those because they all made it onto the year list too. In fact, I forgot about my lifer Sulphur-rumped Tanager from the Manzanillo area so that one at least ties with the Blackpoll.
Ok, so, after a moment of deliberation, I hereby crown my bestest bird of 2013……the Oilbird!
The Oilbird gets the prize because it meets so many categories of awesomeness:
- It’s a rare vagrant to Costa Rica- It probably shows up each year but just doesn’t get found in the dark of a steep cloud forest night and we have no idea where they breed.
- It’s nocturnal-The Oilbird is also a Gothic bird because it lives in caves, makes guttural sounds, and look sort of like a feathered gargoyle. Maybe it will come in to playback of songs composed by Peter Murphy?
- Rather like an avian nocturnal antithesis of the R. Quetzal, it roams through the tropical forest night in search of oily fruits.
- A trio bird- Lifer, new for my CR list, and new for the year.
So, yes, the Oilbird is my personal Baby New Year. if you want to see it in Costa Rica, go on the night walk tour at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge from July to September. Might not be there but this is when they have showed up and their night walk is fantastic in any case. Other highlights included a wonderful 140 plus species day around Carara while guiding some birders from Finland, enjoying the birds of the Manzanillo area with other clients and friends, releasing the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and watching birds with Susan, Robert, Paul, Johan and Ineke, and other folks from the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Hope to see you birding in Costa Rica in 2014!
As luck would have it, very few of the 2013 Costa Rican Christmas counts landed on dates that worked into my schedule. However, as luck would also have it, the one that did fit in was the Osa Christmas Count. This exciting day long survey of all things avian took place on December 20th and I was fortunate to be able to participate in one of the birdiest spots of the count circle, the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge.
This small lodge is one of the best birding lodges in Costa Rica and earns that distinction by being surrounded by extensive areas of rainforest and birdy second growth, small lagoons on and near the property for the lodge, and more open areas en route that turn up other suites of species. Add the excellent guiding, local, in-depth avian knowledge, and quality hospitality to the mix and you end up with a truly fantastic place for birding.
It might be the only place where you can see Black-cheeked Ant Tanagers coming to a feeder, Golden-naped Woodepckers are fairly common, and raptors, many hummingbirds, and even cotingas are regularly seen from the lodge. Yes, it’s great birding at all times and the count was an exciting one.
We arrived on the afternoon of the 19th and would have shown up after dark if we hadn’t pulled ourselves away from the fine birding en route. Black-bellied Wrens, Great Antshrikes, toucans, and much more called from roadside habitats and we could have easily come across dozens of other species near the village of Dos Brazos.
At the lodge itself, after being greeted by Liz and Abraham and being shown to our rooms, we went over the details for the count and enjoyed a wonderful dinner by candlelight. Liz showed us a Turnip-tailed Gecko and then it was off to bed early to be ready for a big day of birding in the hot, humid conditions of the incredible rainforests of the Osa Peninsula. A comfortable bed and the soothing night sounds of the jungle resulted in a good night’s rest before the alarm went off at 4:30 am. The other count participants were just arriving and much to my pleasant surprise, almost everyone was right from the village! On most counts in Costa Rica, participants are students, birders, and biologists that travel to the count circle. At Bosque del Rio Tigre, it was just the opposite and a tangible demonstration of the work that Liz and Abraham have done with the local community. After enjoying a quick breakfast with our fellow counters, Susan, Liz, and I started tallying off birds that called from the tall rainforest just behind the lodge.
This included the dawn songs of Buff-throated Foliage-gleaners, Scaly-throated Leaftossers (a common bird there), Charming Hummingbird, Black-cheeked Ant Tanager, Blue-crowned Motmot, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, and other species. As we walked up the trail that eventually leads to an open area on a ridge above the lodge, we tried our best to keep count of the Lesser Greenlets, Red-capped Manakins, Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Black-faced Antthrushes, and Chestnut-backed Antbirds. Up on the ridge itself, we enjoyed views of toucans, flyby Scarlet Macaws, Mealy, Red-lored, and White-crowned Parrots, and a host of other species that called from and appeared in the surrounding trees. Although cotingas and coquettes eluded us that morning, they are regularly seen from that vantage point. A couple of our better species were White-vented Euphonia and White-necked Puffbird.
Around 9 am, we descended down past birdy spots into equally birdy second growth habitats and continued to add species to the list in the form of Great Antshrike, Dusky Antbird, a few warblers, Slate-headed Tody-Tyrant, King Vulture, White Hawk, and others. The rarest species was arguably a male Blackpoll Warbler! This bird is a rare vagrant in Costa Rica and the one on the count was my first for the country. At first glance, I actually thought is was a Yellow-rumped because I caught a glimpse of it from the front and the markings on each side of the breast looked more that those of that species. Better looks a bit later on in the morning, though, revealed its identity (and as it turns out, local guides had already been seeing that same bird in the area).
By 10:30, it was pretty hot and we had covered our route quite well so we trudged back to the lodge and sat down to a very welcome cold drink and tasty lunch. Although one group ventured back out for a bit, most of us relaxed (or napped in my case) to wait out the hottest part of the day. By 3, birds were becoming more active so we headed back into the field. One group went to the village to look for Red-rumped Woodpecker and other edge species while another walked upriver to get White-crested Coquette and other birds. Susan and I had planned on going upriver as well but because the water would have flowed over and into our rubber boots, we opted for focusing on the river near the lodge. In retrospect. we should have donned river shoes provided by the lodge and got that coquette but at least the birding was great right where we stayed. Checking the treetops didn’t turn up any hoped for cotingas but we were rewarded with nice looks at Laughing Falcon, several tanagers including Blue Dacnis, Long-billed Starthroat among other hummingbird species, and other birds.
During the count that evening, we found that Susan, Liz, and I had tallied around 140 species with many more being added by the other counters. A few people searched for owls once the sun set but we crashed early to be ready for another morning of birding the following day. Since one of the counting groups had seen both cotingas from an overlook on the other side of the river, we opted for that route. Before we even started out, Susan spotted a Red-rumped Woodpecker right in front of the lodge! This was one of the best birds of the trip for me because it had been a much wanted bird for my country list for several years.
Shortly thereafter, as we sweated our way up the hill, we were treated to excellent birding punctuated by several Black-cheeked Ant Tanagers, two more White-collared Puffbirds, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, Baird’s Trogons, and much more. The top overlook would be a fantastic place to spend an entire day. It’s shaded by large trees and offers an excellent view of forested ridges. Scoping revealed lots of vultures as well as Double-toothed Kite and Great Black Hawk (a species that has declined in Costa Rica over the past 10 years). We dipped on cotingas but this is a good place to look for them. The top overlook also abuts beautiful primary rainforest that is connected to the national park. It’s a shame that we didn’t have time to properly bird it because it looked really good and turned up Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Brown-billed Scythebill, and other species right from the overlook.
The walk downhill was of course a million times better than the auto-drenching stroll on the way up. Back at the lodge, we enjoyed a final delicious breakfast before packing up, checking out the Little Tinamou that came out to feed on rice grains near the kitchen, and driving back across the river. On the way out, we couldn’t help but stop for more birding near rice fields and thus got out trip Slate-colored Seedeater.
A stop at Rincon also finally gave us both cotingas! There were at least two Yellow-billed and one male Turquoise in a small fruiting fig but they flew off before I could get adequate shots.
It was also tempting to stop and bird at several sites on the way back but we both wanted to head back to our respective homes so we opted for identifying birds from the car as we high-tailed it back up to the Central Valley.
As in other countries where the holiday tradition takes place, Christmas Counts are happening in Costa Rica. La Selva, Cartago, and Arenal have all had counts this year and as chance would have it, I have missed them all. Nevertheless, I was happy to hear that 70 plus birders participated in the Arenal count and I am sure similar numbers were watching and tallying birds in the other counts. I will do at least one, though, and that always yields serious quality when it comes to birds and biodiversity.
On Friday, I will be listening and watching for everything at the Bosque del Rio Tigre as part of their Christmas Count. Other counts will also be happening in the Osa at that time so it will be interesting to see what turns up in that biodiversity hotspot. I’m hoping to get a few more year birds, record the sounds of several species, get lucky with digiscoping in the rainforest (need lottery winning luck for that), and probably do some birding on the drive to the Osa for one heck of a three day birding extravaganza. My previous experience with the Bosque del Rio Tigre count reconfirmed my belief that it’s the best birding lodge in Costa Rica so I wonder how Friday’s count will match up to a day that included raptors like Tiny Hawk, White Hawk, Black Hawk Eagle, Roadside Hawk, Laughing Falcon, and Gray-headed Kite (probably a few other raptors too), White-tipped Sicklebill, Black-cheeked Ant Tanager, and lots of other quality birds.
As far as the other counts go, I was sad indeed to miss the Arenal gig. The area has a lot of intact habitat and therefore lots of great birds. This year’s count even turned up a Great Jacamar! It was heard only but the calls of this rarity for Costa Rica are unmistakable so I am sure they had one. Since it was found it in the forests of Arenal Observatory Lodge, it seems as if the species was overlooked for that site. Despite a lot of birding done around there, I am actually not too surprised because the area probably hosts a very small population, and few Tico birders have any experience with this species and thus many would probably overlook its vocalization. Of course there are local birders who would recognize the sounds a Great Jacamar makes but they are probably few in number and would have to be at Arenal Oversvatory Lodge exactly when one of the 2 or 4 Great Jacamars that live around there decided to call. Who knows, maybe it also prefers a microhabitat in Costa Rica that we are unaware of? What I do know is that since we also recorded this species in the nearby Penas Blancas Valley earlier this year, there is certainly a small population of Great Jacamars that live in foothills forests of the Monteverde-Arenal Conservation area.
Speaking of Great Jacamar, I am also hoping to find it at Lands in Love. That glittering green and rufous bird might not even be there but since there is quite a bit of primary forest that also happens to be connected to those rainforests mentioned above, I have hopes for it. I was guiding at Lands in Love over the weekend but we got sort of clobbered with rain on our main day. The constant cold front-associated rain kept us from seeing many birds but we still managed goodies like Black-crested Coquette, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Broad-billed Motmot, and Golden-crowned Spadebill. One of the best was a perched Crested Owl just a few steps from the reception!
That cold front is still happening so if you are headed to the Caribbean slope these days, it’s going to be wet. At the same time, it’s also going to drive a bunch of species into the lowlands so look for everything from Black-faced Solitaire to White-ruffed Manakin, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and out of place tanagers around Sarapiqui. The good news is that the Varablanca-Cinchona-Sarapiqui road is finally fixed and paved! It’s probably still narrow in places but there shouldn’t be any more pot holes, ruts, or other rough road madness.
On a final birding news note, we have released version 2.1 of the Costa Rica Bird Field Guide app! That means:
- More species (images, info, and range maps for 578 species, and vocalizations for 346).
- It’s now optimized for the iPad.
- Free update for those who have already purchased this Costa Rica birding app.
- On sale for half the regular price for those who still need to buy it!
Hope to see you birding in Costa Rica!