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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.

This one is royalty when it comes to being evasive.

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.

One of the cabins

Although the diversity was naturally low, quality was high with most species being highland endemics.

We saw several Flame-throated Warblers.

Quite a few Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers were also around.

Sooty Thrushes were common.

Up on the paramo, after a bit of searching, we eventually connected with the junco, wren, and finch (Peg-billed).

Volcano Junco!

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!

The colors really stood out from the surrounding woods.

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.

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl winking at us.

More walk away views ensued after seeing this tough endemic surrounded by Fiery-throated Hummingbirds.

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl from the side.

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.

Including this Dusky Nightjar hanging out in front of the Dantica parking lot.

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!

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admin on December 26th, 2014

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.

    This Golden-naped Woodpecker was at the Troppenstation.

  • 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.

    Striped Owl - one of the new species on each app. Image provided by Josh Beck.

  • 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.

    Visits to the Nature Pavilion for pictures like this were another highlight.

  • 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!

    I saw several Green Thorntails.

  • 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!

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    admin on December 18th, 2014

    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.

    Some of that sweet hummingbird action.

    The feeders are also scenic.

    Lots of fantastic Violet Sabrewings to look at.

    • Crazy, close shots of hummingbirds:

    Juvenile Green-crowned Brilliant.

    Adult Green-crowned Brilliant.

    Adult male Green-crowned Brilliant with photo-bombing White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

    White-bellied Mounatin-Gem

    Green Hermit

    • Black-bellied Hummingbird: Not a whole lot of accessible sites for this one.

    Black-bellied Hummingbird

    Black-bellied Hummingbird showing its flat crown.

    • Coppery-headed Emerald: Common, near endemic (one population was found in Nicaragua).

      Coppery-headed Emerald shaking off the rain.

      Coppery-headed Emerald showing its colors.

    • 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.

    There's also that waterfall to look at. Probably harbors some good swifts.

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    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.

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    admin on December 11th, 2014

    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.

    Getting ready for the count!

    Note the umbrella on the ground- a break in the weather.

    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.

      Mike and Corey wading through yet another stream.

    • 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.

      I want to count birds!

    • 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.

      This was the count mascot.

      This was the one we saw.

    • 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.

      View from the canopy tower.

    • 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!

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    admin on November 27th, 2014

    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

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    admin on November 20th, 2014

    “This is your mission. If you choose to accept it, we will deny any and all knowledge of its existence”. Yeah, or something along those lines. Since Robert, Susan, and I were successful with our ground-dove mission last month, we figured that we could be just as successful with a mission for an avocet. If the mission failed, we knew that we would still have fun anyways so off we went in search of senor skinny sandpiper!

    No, the American Avocet is not endangered and doesn’t even come close to the mystery of the M.C. Ground-Dove BUT, in Costa Rica, it’s certainly chase-worthy. A chase-worthy bird is, of course, a species for which the frequency of occurrence is so darn low that you jump up and chase it when you get the news. The avocet shows up just about every year in Costa Rica but may or may not stay for long. What can I say, it’s a fickle bird! Must be that weird up-turned bill. I mean how do you eat with that? In any case, if you want to check it off the good old Costa Rican list, you have to head down to some salt pond and hope that it hasn’t flown ASAP after the news.

    Salt ponds.

    The way things worked out, we had a chance at chasing the avocet or a possible Yellow-winged Blackbird with a Savannah Hawk thrown in for good measure. Since that second option involved a longer drive, we opted for the first, our sub-mission being that of the Spotted Rail.

    Off we went at dawn on Saturday morning to head to the coast and meet Robert at the turn-off to Monteverde.

    Always a nice view at Caldera.

    A quick check of Caldera didn’t reveal anything of note. There were some birds out there but nothing crazy.

    Although the avocet was reported from salt ponds near Punta Morales, our first stop was the shorebird bastion of Chomes. Anything can show up at Chomes so it’s always worth a stop, especially during high tide (not to mention being the neighbor of Punta Morales). You might also see some dry forest birds on the way in. We didn’t stop for any although we did see like 50 Double-striped Thick-knees lounging about in a dry field.

    Once we got to the shrimp ponds, as has been usual for the past few years, we found most of the birds inthe last ponds on the left. There was a fine, healthy bunch of shorebirds.

    Note that one of then is a Long-billed Curlew.

    Lots of shorebirds!

    After feeling pretty sure that there weren’t any crazy rarities around, we headed back out to the highway and got back on to our main mission for the avocet. First stop was the salt or shrimp ponds at the end of the road from the turn-off just after the El Huevo restaurant.

    The dikes were covered in birds.

    Holy shorebirds, that place was jammed with high arctic migrants!

    Lots of Western Sandpipers were around.

    I had never seen so many shorebirds at the site, including my first Red Knots for Costa Rica, Stilt Sands, and Surfbirds among other more common species. We also got another Long-billed Curlew and were entertained by a calling Lesser ground-Cuckoo while doing so but check as we did, the avocet was a no show.

    Fortunately, it was present at the next set of human-made shorebird habitats!

    Mission accomplished.

    This was at the end of the road at the turn off just across the road from a sign for “camarones frescos”.

    With the avocet in the bag, and the pressure off (at least for shorebirds), we checked Ensenada and the Colorado salt pans at a more leisurely pace. The birds were being a bit too leisurely though because we didn’t see anything of note.

    Nice looks at Lesser Yellowlegs though.

    And Roseate Spoonbill.

    By this time, it was two in the afternoon and we had to decide if we could make it to rail produucing rice fields before the sun set. The reservoir at Canas seemed too far, same for the catfish ponds. So, we opted for rice fields on the way in to Palo Verde. That seemed within reach and it was despite the wacky, very possibly dangerous aspect of the road construction of the Pan-American highway. Seriously, be very careful, it’s hard to see where a section of road might abruptly end, there are surprise sharp turns, and some people driving in the wrong lane (as in approaching head on traffic wrong).

    On the road to Palo Verde, after a brief stop for a couple of scampering bobwhites, we sort of rushed back to rice fields, found a suitable spot and played Spotted Rail vocalizations. Red-winged Blackbirds flew around and we checked them for yellow-headeds sans success.

    A Limpkin showed off its ibis-like head while perched in a bush.

    We even saw a few Wilson's Snipe and Jabirus!

    No Spotted Rail though. Come to think of it, we didn’t even see a gallinule. No rails amand when the sun set, no White-tailed Nightjar either (as pretty much per usual), so we headed to Liberia for the night. A good night and good deal at the El Sitio Best Western- very much recommedned on account of the extensive birdy grounds (including a small lagoon in the back), big included breakfast, and comfort. However, be careful about staying on the weekend because a bar across the street plays loud music literally all night long.

    We had nice looks at Spot-breasted Oriole.

    The next morning, the rail quest continued over at the rice fields on the way to Playa Hermosa, and at the catfish ponds (aka Sardinal lagunas, no more catfish). Once again, no response form any rallid although we did connect with Tricolored Munia, Painted Bunting and other dry forest birds, and a few hundred ducks. Among the ducks were Blue-winged Teal, a couple of shovelers, Ring-necked, and Lesser Scaup but no Masked.

    A Banded wren from the ponds.

    In keeping with ducks, our next site was the reservoir at Canas. Although there weren’t as many ducks compared to last winter (yet…), we nevertheless had fun looking through hundreds of Lesser Scaup and in the process, got a Ring-necked Duck, and a Redhead! The Redhead was a major bonus as it was first recorded in Costa Rica just a few years ago and I had missed the one at Canas last winter.

    Find the Redhead!

    Mission success on the avocet, not so for the Spotted Rail, time to go back to the drawing board for that one…

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    admin on November 13th, 2014

    If Costa Rica has a pioneer birding lodge, it would have to be Rancho Naturalista. I am pretty sure that this gem of a destination was the first place in Costa Rica to put most of the focus on birders and continues to please birdwatchers to this day. Rancho’s legacy includes several in-house guides who have gone on to guide tours around the globe, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of happy photographers, and legendary food. In trip reports, that culinary aspect of Rancho is at times overshadowed by the birds but oh how it does deserve a mention!

    For example, after a recent trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we finished off the first day with a dinner of Morrocan Chicken. Meat falling off the bone, scrumptious, honest to goodness Morrocan recipe chicken. Every meal was just as fantastic and it prepares you for the fun birding on and off the grounds of the hotel.

    As far as birding goes, feeders and birdy habitats always ensure plenty to look at. Upon arrival, we were treated to the ongoing hummingbird party. This glittering festival never ends and includes such guests as

    White-necked Jacobin,

    Green-breasted Mango,

    Crowned Woodnymph,

    Brown Violetear,

    and Black-crested Coquette visible in the Porterweed for most of our stay. We also had other hummingbird species along with more than a few close looks at birds coming to fruit and rice feeders. Among those were

    Brown Jay and

    Gray-headed Chachalaca along with other species.

    On more than one occasion, we also saw one of the least common, widespread raptors in the neotropics-

    Bicolored Hawk! Rancho just might be the most reliable place for this species anywhere in its range.

    But these birds were just some of the ones around the buildings. Up on the trails, the birding wasn’t as easy but we still saw White-crowned Manakin, heard Zeledon’s Antbird and Carmiol’s Tanager, and saw a fair selection of other middle elevation species. If you spent the whole day on the upper trails, you would have a fair chance at Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Brown-billed Sythebill, tanagers, and lots of other species.

    Female White-crowned Manakin.

    Although we didn’t do much on the upper trails, we had fun with one of the coolest attractions at Rancho. This gem was the moth sheet. The insects that come to the sheet at night are in turn eaten by birds that show up early in the morning and most are shy, forest interior species. The most common bird was Red-throated Ant-Tanager although we also had close looks at Plain-brown and Spotted Woodcreepers, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Plain Antvireo, and great looks at another reliable rarity at Rancho, the Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

    Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

    Staying at Rancho isn’t cheap but you get more than what you pay for with excellent birding, fantastic food, excellent service, and the oportunity to hire very good guides. Take the La Mina excursion and you have a 95% chance of seeing Sunbittern.

    We saw this pair!

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    admin on November 6th, 2014

    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.

    Common Bush Tanagers like the rain.

    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.

    You are far more likely to see Slaty Flowerpiercers than Yellow-headed Blackbirds in Costa Rica.

    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.

    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.

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    admin on October 29th, 2014

    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.

    During the day, the view is pretty nice from high up on the volcano.

    At least if such sacrifices are made, you can be rewarded with some hefty nice birds. For example….

    Maroon-chested Ground-Dove.

    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).

    Maroon-chested Ground-Dove with eyes closed.

    Maroon-chested Ground-Dove from the side.

    Eventually, it tired of our stares and fluttered off to another, more secluded bush.

    The look of success.

    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.

    Irazu can also be good for Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl.

    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.

    Peg-billed Finches chowing down on bamboo seeds.

    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

    Black and yellow silky Flycatcher

    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.

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