Growing up in western New York, August was a time of dusky, hazy weather. During those muggy, late summer days, I used to wonder if it was like that in tropical places with palm trees, white sand beaches, and turquoise water. I only knew those places well south of the border through travel brochures, National Geographic, and books in the Earl Bridges Public Library. At the time of teen years during the late 1980s, the closest I had come to anything tropical was the wave pool at “Niagara Splash”. It acted as my temporary tropical proxy, especially on beautiful summer days when white fluffy clouds floated through blue skies, but I surmised that it was nothing like the real thing. Some days, it was kind of too cold to go into the water (hence the eventual closure of the water park after a few years), and the avian scene was punctuated by crows and gulls instead of parrots and toucans.
Although Niagara gull watching in winter can be nice…
Little did I know that I would get a chance to experience the true essence of the tropics while birding in Costa Rica a few years later. While the hazy humidity was reminiscent of a northern august, the sun was ten times hotter, it got dark by six, and yes, there were indeed hundreds of new and excitingly unfamiliar birds including parrots, toucans, tinamous, and tanagers. Today, as I write this, August at my place in Costa Rica is cloudy, warm and fairly humid, and the skies are preparing for the afternoon rains. If I look outside, I might see a Tropical Kingbird perched on a wire, see vultures turning circles high above, and espy White-winged Doves and Red-billed Pigeons zipping by. Summer is eternal down here in the tropical latitudes but not all the beaches have snow-white sand or clear, turquoise waters. I felt a mild earthquake today but that comes with the scenery. The birding is always exciting, though, so if you are going to be here these days, enjoy the feathered show. Now for some birding news related to Costa Rica:
Some migrants are back in town: Up north, a lot of birds are moving but still have some time before they reach Costa Rica. Nevertheless, change is in the air and some migrants are leaving as other arrive. Shorebirds have been turning up in the usual haunts, I no longer hear or see Piratic Flycatchers, Swallow-tailed Kites are on the move to their winter Amazonian haunts, and I was surprised by a sighting of an American Redstart just the other day. Waterthrushes have also been seen as have wood-pewees. It will be interesting to see what other migrants I might find during the next four days of solid birding from here to the Osa peninsula. I’ll let you know!
To see what else has been reported from Costa Rica the past couple of weeks, search eBird for Costa Rica, bar charts, and set the dates for August, 2016. Sorry about non link, at the moment, there is some problem related to adding links to my posts.
Great Green Macaws are in the foothills: Although this endangered species is usually associated with the Caribbean lowlands, during the wet season, it is more often found at foothill sites. Lately, I have had a few in the early morning at Quebrada Gonzalez and El Tapir, and had a flock of 14 near Virgen del Socorro a few days ago. In the past, I have also had fairly large flocks of this species in the foothills between Virgen del Socorro, and Ciudad Quesada. The ones from the other day were seen from the road between San Miguel and Virgen del Socorro.
You might also see an Ornate Hawk-Eagle in flight. This one was flying high overhead in the same area as the macaws.
Oilbirds in Monteverde: This sweet target twitch for Costa Rica has been seen during night hikes at Curi Cancha and the Refugio (Monteverde Wildlife Refuge). I’m so dying to head up there and watch those weird birds, hope I can somehow find the time to do it. I just spoke with Robert Dean today about them and he said that there might just be a few, or there might by several, really no way to know. But, they are definitely showing, make sure to go on the night hike at either of those sites and ask to see the Oilbirds. Better yet, one of them has a transmitter on it! Hopefully, we can finally find out where these birds are coming from. Robert also mentioned that the wild avocados up that way are also full of fruit. With luck, that will keep the Oilbirds around for a while.
The Costa Rica Festival of Birds and Nature is coming up: Have you ever wanted to see a Cerulean Warbler in Costa Rica? How about seeing one while looking at lots of cool resident birds? That will happen during the third Festival de Aves y Naturaleza de Costa Rica. It all happens on September 3rd and 4th and will be an excellent weekend of birding, frogging, and helping with local conservation. On a side note, local top guide and field researcher Ernesto Carman also has a cool, new website and guiding endeavor. Check out http://www.getyourbirds.com/
Maybe one of the species you will see will be an Olive-backed Euphonia.
Costa Rica Birding Hotspots will be at BirdFair: If you are going to be at BirdFair 2016, check out Serge Arias’ presentation about the Endemic Birds of Costa Rica, Friday, 1:30 pm, Lecture Marqee 1. I wish I could be there! – http://www.birdfair.org.uk/events/the-endemic-birds-to-costa-rica/
The sad passing of a local birding guide: By far, the saddest news is the recent passing of Roy Orozco. Roy was a local, excellent birding guide, naturalist, and artist as well husband and father. I last saw Roy in late March while birding at Arenal Observatory Lodge. As usual, we exchanged sightings and I looked forward to birding with him without clients. Sadly, his last battle with cancer kept that day from arriving. Roy was a kind, generous, positive person who loved birding and the natural world, and made a positive impression on many people. In being a birder, he was also one of our “tribe”. Whether it’s because as a young person, I always wanted to meet other people like myself who yearned to experience birds at all times, and/or because I feel a sense of companionship with those who share this passion, I can’t help but view other birders as part of my tribe, my people, and Roy was one of them. At this time, probably because of bureaucracy, it appears that Roy’s widow and children are in need of help, and one of his good friends and fellow guides, Johan Chaves, is working hard to help them survive. Please consider helping the family of a fellow birder and guide who likewise helped hundreds of people experience and appreciate the beauty of the natural world by contacting Johan at: firstname.lastname@example.org
or, by phone: (506) 88504419
See his Facebook page at:
That’s all for now, keep your fingers crossed that I can post a picture of a big rainforest eagle some time next week!
The easiest place to experience quality rainforest birding when staying in the San Jose area is El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez. Or, maybe I should say the quickest, most accessible place because the birding there is never actually easy. Instead, it’s a mysterious challenge that always comes with a temptation of birding gold. But, even if you are just getting started with birds, it’s still worth a visit, especially if you have a free day around San Jose.
A lot of people ask me about the birding in San Jose and my reply is always the same. I tell them that birding in the city isn’t really worth the effort, especially when you can do an easy day trip for foothill species at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez, or highland birds up in the Poas area. Both areas are a close hour’s drive, and always offer quality birding. Compare that to looking for common species in public parks or gardens while worrying about someone trying to steal your binoculars and there’s really no comparison. Maybe if you want to safely look for the endemic ground-sparrow and hang with common birds while staying at places like the Bougainvillea, Xandari, or Zamora Estates, but, in general, if you want to see more, then you need to head over to the mountains. In the case of the foothill sites, that would actually be up and over the mountains.
I did that for a recent day of guiding, and I hope this short report gives an idea of what you might run into over that way. As might these eBird checklists:
If you haven’t previously talked with the guards at Quebrada Gonzalez about leaving the gate open before eight (the usual opening time), go past the ranger station for a couple kilometers and watch for the entrance to El Tapir on the right. Don’t expect a sign but know that it’s the first entrance for a car on the right. If the gate is closed, open it and head on in. Hopefully, the Snowcaps will be active along with lots of other hummingbirds. They were when we were there, including 5 or 6 Snowcaps of all ages and genders, and several other species including Brown Violetear.
Not a whole lot else was going on and the surrounding tree tops were nearly absent of birds, but that can change from one day to the next with various species of raptors showing up, toucans and parrots perching in view, and even Great Green Macaw making an appearance. That large, endangered parrot did indeed show for us even if it was a quick flyby. That happened while we were trying to get good looks at Russet Antshrike, Spotted Antbird, and Slate-colored Grosbeak, all of which were singing (and hiding) at the same time. The antbird didn’t play ball very well, but the other two eventually showed. We also got onto some of our first tanagers as they moved through in a quick flock with several Black-faced grosbeaks.
Deeper into the forest, my hopes and excitement kicked up a notch upon hearing Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds but eventually went back down to birding standby as those ant followers moved off. They never showed and just kept going so I assume they were wandering in search of Army Ants. I played calls of mega R.V. G. Cuckoo and the gnatpitta anyways but got nothing in response. On we went and saw that recent heavy rains had dropped too many branches to go much further. Unfortunately, it was the same situation on the trail down to the river, so we couldn’t explore much of that part of the forest, an area where I suspected that we had more of a chance at Lattice-tailed Trogon or even umbrellabird. However, we still saw found one understory insectivore flock with hoped for Streak-crowned Antvireo, and White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens.
Back out in the hummingbird garden, we looked some more before heading over to Quebrada Gonzalez for the rest of the day. Sunny weather kept things pretty quiet but we still managed a few mixed flocks with target White-throated Shrike-Tanager, several other tanagers, a few more Streak-crowned Antvireos, Pale-vented Thrush, and some other birds. No ground birds seen, nor even singing Nightingale Wrens nor Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (usually a given on those trails). But, we did see a King Vulture in flight, heard the Caribbean slope subspecies of Streak-chested Antpitta, saw Striped Woodhaunter, and eventual nice looks at Speckled and Emerald Tanagers.
A good site for the easy on the eyes Emerald Tanager,
and the Speckled Tanager.
The only break we took was for lunch just down the road at Chicharronera Patona. It’s small and there’s not a lot on the menu but the food is home-cooked, plentiful, fair-priced, and the owners like birds. It also offers a look into some tall trees and a hillside of forest. You never know what might show at that site. When we were there, we had close looks at Black-cheeked and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, Band-backed Wren, and some other species. The spot also features some awful road noise but since the owner once saw either Crested or Harpy Eagle perched on that hillside, yeah, it’s worth a stop!
At the end of the day, we had a fairly modest list but we still got a fair percentage of the targets, including several species tough to see elsewhere. For someone with a free day or morning, it’s always a good bet.
As befits a country where tourism plays a big role in the economy and lives of a few million people, Costa Rica offers a long list of accommodation options. There are bed and breakfasts, hostels for the young and/or super thrifty, large, all-inclusive hotels, small, family owned operations, and lodges geared towards those who visit Costa Rica to experience and appreciate an abundance of tropical nature. Falling within that latter category are a few hotels that focus on birding, or at least have a local guide or two who are avid birders, keep track of the avifauna at and around the hotel, and are always happy to share those birds to guests. Since most of the birding hotels in Costa Rica are used by bird tour companies, anyone who reads trip reports or who looks for information about birding in Costa Rica will be pretty familiar with those lodges.
However, such hotels aren’t the only places that cater to birders. Other, lesser known lodges with resident birding guides don’t make it onto trip reports because they are way off the usual beaten birding track. One of those locales is Luna Lodge- http://lunalodge.com/. Ironically, the main reason why fewer birders get there is also why it is one of the best sites for birding in the country. As with most high quality sites anywhere, habitat is key to birding success and Luna Lodge has it. It comes in the form of the primary lowland rainforests of the Osa Peninsula and not at the edge either, but pretty close to the heart of the forest. Combine high quality rainforest with a nearby coastal lagoon, and flat lowland sites with second growth and riparian zones where Speckled Mourner has been seen (one of the rarest resident species in Costa Rica), and you know that you are in for some fantastic birding.
On the deck at Luna Lodge.
I know this because I helped start the first bird list for Luna Lodge several years ago. It was during the time of the millenium (I actually spent New Year’s eve there in 1999/2000), and the place was just getting started. Although I didn’t get lucky with a Harpy or Crested Eagles, both species were seen at the lodge not long after my stay (gripped!). However, I did see things like:
-Daily sightings of several King Vultures.
-Flocks of Scarlet Macaws every day.
-All three hawk-eagles, usually at least one of them every day.
-White-tipped Sicklebill, White-crested Coquette, lots of Charming Hummingbirds, and other expected species.
-Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager pretty much every day- a species endemic to the Osa peninsula and adjacent rainforests.
-Turquoise Cotinga- one of the only accessible sites where it is common.
-Great Curassow and Crested Guan daily.
-Large mixed flocks with tanagers, flycatchers, woodcreepers (including the elusive Long-tailed), and many other species.
Rufous-winged Woodpecker is often in those big flocks.
-Lots of monkeys and other animals.
It was simply fantastic birding in beautiful rainforest. The food was also good but it’s hard to compare the lodge then to what it’s like after years of success. Nowadays, there is a yoga platform with a distant view of the ocean where Scarlet Macaws fly against a rainforest backdrop. Yeah, that sounds like a commercial or documentary but I’m not going to lie, that is what the view looks like. There are also several trails, and overlooks to scan the canopy for raptors and other birds. The food is also fantastic as is the service, attention, and Gary, the local birding guide knows his stuff very well.
Another view at Luna Lodge.
I’m writing about Luna Lodge not because I have been there recently, but because I will be there in a few weeks. From August 18th to August 21st, I will be guiding a trip to Luna for the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. Although I don’t usually post such announcements on my blog, I am doing so this time because we still have a few spots open for the trip, and it’s an excellent opportunity to experience the birding at Luna Lodge for a fantastic low price. If you are going to be in Costa Rica during these dates and want to go on this trip with us, this is what you can expect:
-Several looks at Turquoise Cotinga as well as the other stuff I mention above.
-High quality lowland rainforest birding in one of the most biodynamic places in Central America. Including birding en route, we will probably identify around 170 species including many uncommon species and regional endemics including…
Black-hooded Antshrike and
-Good birding en route that could turn up Pearl Kite, Savanna Hawk, and a variety of other edge and open country species. You could also stop at the Rincon bridge to look for Yellow-billed Cotinga…
-Three nights lodging and excellent meals for $255. The guide fee depends on the number of participants but might be around $75 to $100.
If you are interested in this excellent birding deal, please email me at email@example.com before August 8th. I hope to help you experience the fantastic birding in the Osa peninsula at Luna Lodge!
Ironically, the summer is quiet time for a lot of birders up north. Although it would seem that the warm weather makes it easier to get outside and see what’s going on in terms of nature, a fair percentage of birders take a break during the three months of summer. The mid-year lull seems to be mostly followed by birders who have been looking through their binoculars for five years or more. This is because they think that they already know what’s around, and don’t expect anything new, so, aren’t as eager to explore than during seasons when unexpected migrants and vagrants can occur.
Beginning birders still do a lot of birding in summer probably because a new bird or two are still easy to come by, even near home, and they are still close enough to the exciting start of the learning curve to easily find new knowledge in most things they see. Once experienced birders realize that there is always more to learn and master about the avian side of life, they can find themselves back at the beginning of another, new learning experience and can get just as excited about summer birding as spring or fall (well, maybe not May but that’s in a special category of its own). Not to mention, vagrants can and do turn up in summer no matter where a birder lives, so it does pay to get out there and pay attention. I was reminded of that just after coming back from a recent family trip to Niagara Falls.
As usual, we were too busy doing family stuff to do any visiting, but I did manage to go birding a few times. Down at Goat Island, my favorite local birding patch right above the Falls, it was a treasure to be re-acquainted with species like Tufted Titmouse, gulls, and other common species. A singing Indigo Bunting was a nice surprise, as were hundreds of swallows and Chimney Swifts feeding over the river and islands. On another day, I had a fine day of birding with Alec out at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. We saw a pair of Cerulean Warblers feeding a juvenile. Will those birds come to Costa Rica next month? I picked up other year birds including Bobolinks and American Bittern. Both of those are on the Costa Rica list but very rare vagrants. I always wonder why we don’t get more records of Bobolinks, but I never hear their tinking calls so often heard by birders up north who listen for the faint calls of nocturnal migrants, and the species is almost never seen in CR except for Cocos Island. Although Alec and I didn’t find any vagrants, I did see that a vagrant White Ibis was found in WNY just after coming back to Costa Rica; a species that would have been missed if someone hadn’t gone birding during the “boring” summer months.
Speaking of this volcanic, byodynamic country, the summer birding doldrums are much less of a fantasy here than in the north even for myself or others who have spent countless hours in every habitat. Although we won’t see any wintering species, the plethora of resident species always makes things exciting, especially when so many of them are rare. I could still pick up some lifers (although they may require more time and effort than I typically have- Tawny-faced Quail comes to mind), and any trip to tropical forest can result in views of species and behaviors we just don’t see that often. Maybe I will finally get that picture and recording of the oddly rare Gray-headed Piprites so we can finally update the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app with images and sounds of that species. Maybe I can do the same for Black-banded Woodcreeper, and the local variety of Ashy-throated Chlorospingus (both are likely splits).
You might see a fancy male Red-headed Barbet.
If you are in Costa Rica right now, don’t worry about being here at the wrong time. There are no summer birding doldrums in Costa Rica because the birding is always exciting. Those rare birds are out there but even if you don’t see them, you will still see a lot when birding in the right places.
Or, close looks at a Lesser Violetear.
Look for them in the right way and you might see those rarities anyways (get my 700 plus page e-book to learn about the best places to look and how to find the birds you want to see). Always remember that you will see lots of birds no matter when you go birding in Costa Rica.
They might not be there yet, but will be as soon as the official bird list for Costa Rica is updated with the recent changes made to the AOU North America list. Every supplement to the AOU list comes with some changes but they usually pertain to Latin names or placement of species and genera on the overall list. This time, though, there are several changes for Costa Rica, including new names and armchair ticks (!). It means that The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide will need to be eventually updated, and that I will have to see when we can add the new changes to the Panama and Costa Rica Birds Field Guide apps.
None of the birds are new to the country but the way we view them in a species context is. These are the changes in species and names and where to see them:
Gray-necked Wood-Rail: This common, raucous species has been neatly split into three species, with two of them in Costa Rica. Although we still have to figure out exactly where they replace each other, or occur together, there seems to be one on the north Caribbean slope, and another everywhere else. Those two new birds are the Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail. They mostly differ by the amount of rufous on the nape and by vocalizations. In the meantime, though, if you see a wood-rail at say La Selva or other sites on the north Caribbean slope, it is probably a Russet-naped. If seen anywhere else, it is a Gray-cowled. So, if you have seen Gray-necked Wood-Rail on both slopes, give yourself one armchair tick.
These Russet-naped Wood-Rails were seen at Lands in Love. They often hang out by the duck pond. The bird below is a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail. Yep, they look pretty similar.
Green Violetear: Not anymore. Now, these common green, highland hummingbirds are known as Lesser Violetear! These are the same species as the former Green Violetears in South America, and were split from birds that range from Nicaragua north to Mexico. Those ones are now known as “Mexican Violetear” and it is this species that has shown up in the USA (as far as I know). If you have seen Green Violetears in Mexico and Costa Rica, give yourself another armchair tick.
Lesser Violetears are easy to see at many highland sites in Costa Rica including Monteverde, Poas, and the Talamancas. They visit feeders and flowering plants, and call with such broken record regularity, you may feel compelled to plug your ears or chase the hummingbird away (that won’t work, it just comes back and calls again, and again, and again, and…)
Lesson’s Motmot: The former Blue-crowned Motmot has a snazzy new name. These birds are the ones we see in Costa Rica and are quite common in middle elevations and on the Pacific slope. Watch for it in hotel gardens in the Central Valley, in riparian zones in the Pacific lowlands, and in the Monteverde area. If you have seen this motmot in Costa Rica and Mexico, once again, enjoy another tick!
Plain Wren: Finally, we have the Canebrake Wren being officially recognized as a full species. Watch for it in lowland second growth anywhere in the Caribbean lowlands. You might have to watch for a while until it reveals itself because it’s a skulking pain, though. Less expected was a split of the Plain Wrens on the Pacific slope. Although we probably still need to figure out where they replace each other, it looks like birds from Quepos to Panama are now known as Isthmian Wren, and those north of there are Cabanis’s Wren. They look pretty much the same and have similar yet different vocalizations, so your best bet is to make sure that you actually see Plain Wren anywhere north of Quepos and anywhere south of Quepos. Both are common in coffee farms and second growth. If you have seen Plain Wrens in the Caribbean lowlands, in the Central Valley or Monteverde, and around La Gamba, pat yourself on the birding back with two armchair ticks!
This is a Cabanis’s Wren, the Isthmian looks pretty much the same.
Costa Rica Warbler: This was part of a three-way split from the Three-striped Warbler. The original Three-stripeds live in the Andes, while the Costa Rican is yet another highland endemic of Costa Rica and western Panama. The third member of the Three-striped taxo club is the Tacarcuna Warbler, a species only found in highland sites in eastern Panama. Look for the Costa Rican Warbler at any cloud forest site including the La Paz gardens, Monteverde, and many other sites. It’s fairly common and if you have seen this bird in Costa Rica and South America, help yourself to one more armchair tick.
Thanks to the AOU, it looks like I just added 6 species to my lifelist! I hope you did too.
We are wrapping up the breeding bird count season in Costa Rica. If I could do a few counts a week, I would but I only do three because I haven’t had time to do more. Hopefully, that will change by next year and I can participate in counts on the Osa (where a cool count workshop took place this year), on the Manuel Brenes Road, and other birdy spots. In the meantime, I enjoy my three counts; one near the house, another on Poas, and the third one at Quebrada Gonzalez, the first place that acted as my inaugural birding experience in rainforest.
Since that day in late 1992, some of the bird populations at the site have changed somewhat and not for the better. The habitat is there but the amount of rainfall that resulted in massive mixed flocks, hawk-eagles, tons of wrens, and various foothill specialties has diminished. Most species still seem present but several have declined bit by bit in conjunction with less rainfall, and a few species might be gone from the site. They might still show up from time to time but have most likely taken a hike to higher, wetter, and cooler elevations.
But this post is about the most recent count, not laments over human-caused climate change that is pushing so much life towards extinction, so I will get on with the report. Fortunately, Susan was able to join me for the count, and we started at 6 am as usual. The gate is usually closed until 8 but, thankfully, I was able to speak with the rangers and arrange an earlier visit. Our first point was busy straight away and ended up being the best of the day because we connected with a mixed flock that held White-throated Shrike-Tanager, several Carmiol’s and Dusky-faced Tanagers, and other birds.
The excitement almost stopped there because most of the following counts were pretty slow. We had just a couple Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, one or two Dull-mantled Antbirds, one White-ruffed Manakin, and low numbers overall. The Lattice-tailed Trogons weren’t calling, nor were the Chestnut-backed Antbirds, but we did have several wood-wrens and Stripe-breasted Wrens, one Band-backed Wren, and a fair number of other species.
Although it was a bit slow, that can always happen at that site with one or a few rare birds thrown in for good measure. This happened during the count as we got our best bird up on the ridge at one of our points. As Susan looked up, she noticed a bit of movement and said, “There’s a raptor” followed by, “wait, is that a raptor”? I got on the bird and yes, it sure was and a good one. For a moment, she wasn’t entirely sure about it being a raptor because it was so small. That could only mean one thing, Tiny Hawk!
We watched it for several minutes in the subcanopy as it plucked the feathers from and ate some small green bird. This was a fantastic sighting because although I have always known that the species was present (perfect habitat and other reports), this was the first time I had actually seen it at the site. This mini hawk escapes detection because it is probably naturally rare, is the size of a thrush, happens to be a sneaky ambush predator that hides in the dense vegetation of the canopy, and doesn’t vocalize that often. In other words, good luck seeing it!
After the Tiny Hawk, we also flushed a juvenile Olive-backed Quail-Dove. This species seems to be getting more common at Quebrada and might be out-competing the formerly common Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.
On the other side of the road, things were pretty quiet with almost no birds visible from the overlook. It wasn’t really until after the count that we started getting more species. A Chestnut-backed Antbird finally sang, we heard a Dot-winged Antwren, two Streak-chested Antpittas, and had a juvenile Great Black Hawk fly right into our field of view.
Kind of a quiet morning, but at least one flock during a point count, a bigger one between points, and a few other forest species that are tough to see. Not bad for a morning of birding and pretty much par for the course at Quebrada. Stay longer, just hang out in the forest, and you might be surprised at what shows up.
We are half way through the year and that means six months to go before making a final tally of bird species identified during 2016. Time is relative, calendars are subjective inventions, and some people who have binoculars banter back and forth about keeping lists. So what? At the end of the day, we should all be reminded that life is usually shorter than we would prefer, it is unpredictable, and we should therefore have as much fun as we can (in addition to learning and doing good, etc, but those aspects are for another blog). Part of that fun can be keeping a year list because it gives us something to work towards, something to look forward to, and, most of all, encourages you to get out there and look for more birds, do more birding.
If you go to the mall, play too many games of bingo, or watch some useless reality show instead of going outside, you ain’t never gonna see a Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher. Actually, if you don’t visit Costa Rica or Panama, you won’t see one either.
I haven’t spent so much time in the field lately and it’s not because I was doing any of the above. I guess it’s because it rains a fair deal now, it’s always hard for me to get out mid-week during the early good birding hours, and the low season translates to less guiding. It’s also bird breeding season and just as with birders up north, the lack of migrants sometimes makes us feel lazy about looking for birds. This is clearly a silly concept because rarities can still show up in June and there is always more to learn about towhees, brush-finches, toucans, or other birds no matter which ones we are looking at.
Always nice to look at one of these…
I might also be acting a bit lazy about birding because I already have a healthy year list. Each year, I hope to at least see or hear 600 bird species in Costa Rica, and thanks to some intense guiding during March and April, surpassed that mark a while ago. I’m now at 634 species, my latest addition being a surprise Slate-colored Seedeater that was singing at a bamboo seeding event near Cinchona this very morning. From now on, several additions are likely to happen like that seedeater, unexpected but based on statistics, nevertheless probable. What I am trying to say is that the more time we spend in the field with focused intent on birds, the more species we see, including the rare ones. Speaking of “rare ones”, there are a lot in Costa Rica. This is typical for neotropical birding, and even more so when most accessible forests are quite fragmented.
However, I still have a bunch of other candidate species for the year list that aren’t so rare. They just live in places and habitats where I have spent little time in 2016. One of those areas is San Vito and down there by the border with Panama. If I can make it down that way, I will have a fair chance at adding Crested Oropendola, Bran-colored Flycatcher, and several other species that lack the annual tick mark. Since a few would also be new for my country list, I should really make an effort to go and see them. I hope I can make that happen so I can finally check off Lance-tailed Manakin, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet for my Costa Rica list. Not to mention, there’s a lot of other cool birds down that way too.
Other gaps come in the form of seabirds but for a seasick prone person like myself, that’s always the case. With some judicious ferry trips, I should add some of those and will always have a chance at picking up something truly rare from the top deck of the boat. Hitting 650 or even 700 will also be more likely if I can connect with several migrants. Hopefully, if we go for another Big Day in fall, scouting will turn up some of those needed species along with various rarities. Whether I hit the 700 mark or not by 2017, trying for it will be all good because that will make me do a lot of birding anyways and that’s the best part of it. Are you keeping track of year birds? Whether in Costa Rica or elsewhere, tell everyone about it in the comments.
In Costa Rica, when referring to “high birding”, that doesn’t have anything to do with looking for birds under the influence of Cannabis (although that might give you some imaginary lifers). It just means heading uphill to the places where the vegetation rings with the songs of Collared Redstarts and jostles with the foraging of Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses. I know, please, say Chloro what? I mean can a bird please have a name that doesn’t sound like an obscure part of the anatomy? Not when it’s a former pseudo-tanager/finch thing. Well, I guess that’s what Chlorospingus means and it’s always better to build the personal lexicon than subtract from it so happy Chlorospingus to everybody.
The Sooty-capped Chlorospingus could also be known as the “Lighting-stripe headed Highland Chunkster”.
Last week, a morning of guiding on Irazu got me into some fine high birding and not just to the realm of the S-C Chlorospingus. It also brought us up above the treeline and into junco land. The junco in question here is an angry-looking bird with fierce yellow eyes, pinkish bill, and a home range that sits atop a few mountains. It shares that range with a handful of other bird species, one of which is the Timberline Wren. On our day of birding, we got both just outside the entrance to the national park. Happily, the Volcano Juncos just about followed us around as a pair of adults fed their striped, sparrow-looking youngsters. Really good to see that they had a successful nesting season (so far, although the young sure looked healthy as they hopped around and ate berries and bugs).
Young Volcano Junco.
A fierce adult Volcano Junco at Irazu.
I was very pleased that we saw them so well because they can be a pain to find when they refuse to leave the dense haunts of paramo vegetation. Speaking of skulking, that’s what the wren chose to do until, at the last moment, a pair sang close enough for us to see them.
Timberline Wren from another day at Irazu.
We had a pretty good morning overall seeing most possible species including flight (but good) views of male and female Resplendent Quetzals, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, brief looks at Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Flame-throated Warbler, both silky-flycatchers, and so on.
The Flame-throated Warbler lives up to its evocative name. Flame on feathered dude!
The following morning, it was down to dry guiding and birding for the annual meeting of the Birding Club of Costa Rica near Universidad de la Paz at the Finca Caballo Loco. It was nice to see several people I hadn’t seen in a while, especially Henry, a guy who has been passionate about living in harmony with other living things for many years. The birding turned up various expected species in edge habitats and dry topical forest (nice and green at this time of year). Olive Sparrows and Yellow-green Vireos were singing nearly non-stop, and we had nice looks at several bird species including Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Keel-billed Toucans, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.
Fiery-billed Aracari also showed very well.
The weekend made for an interesting mix of species typical of birding in Costa Rica in radically different habitats from one day to the next. I did not go out birding on Sunday but could have easily visited Caribbean slope foothill forests or cloud forests for yet another suite of species not seen on Friday or Saturday. The close combination of different ecosystems always makes for a bio-exciting experience and I suspect that few other places on the planet can offer such radically different birding is such a small area. Hope to see you here!
Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:
Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.
Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.
Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.
You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.
What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).
Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.
Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.
Some stuff to study:
Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:
-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.
–Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.
Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:
– Any other books by Alexander Skutch.
– Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.
-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.
– Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.
eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.
Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:
– A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.
– How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.
Last weekend, I guided a Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to the Los Campesinos Ecolodge. This site is one of several rural tourism initiatives in Costa Rica, and like most, provides somewhat basic yet good service and food in a setting surrounded by green space. The birding at these sites varies in terms of “quality” birds (“quality” being synonymous with large areas of mature forest) but it’s always nice (“nice” meaning that you will see a bunch of birds, and different ones every day).
Some information about birding at Campesinos:
Nice views: With the cabins situated on a ridge between streams, you have a fair view of a couple of forested hillsides. The distant trees are the perfect opportunity to make use of that scope that you almost didn’t bring to Costa Rica. We saw Golden-naped Woodpeckers, a few raptor species, tityras, and other expected birds. Other species are of course also possible, maybe even Turquoise Cotinga. It does live in the area after all. The ridge-top location also allows views into much closer crowns of trees. Our hoped for mixed flocks at eye level never showed but could certainly happen, and we did have nice looks at Olivaceous Piculet (common there), Eye-ringed Flatbill, Blue Dacnis, Long-billed Starthroat, and other species.
This Eye-ringed Flatbill was very cooperative.
Secondary forest:Although there is some older growth along the stream, it seemed like most forest around the ecolodge was secondary in nature. There are still plenty of birds but that type of forest doesn’t usually have as many raptors and many species as older rainforest. That said, we had some nice species indicative of older forest anyways including a Striped Woodhaunter that entertained us with its ringing calls all day long, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Red-capped Manakin, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and Scaly-throated Leaftosser. These were all on the trails that went down to the streams.
The view from the cabins.
Mature forest on the road up: Although the birding is OK at the ecolodge, I suspect that it is much better on the drive up. Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to bird along the road but the habitat looked really good with lots of huge trees, and streams. I really want to survey that road and would expect such species as White-tipped Sicklebill, Blue-crowned Manakin, various woodcreepers, trogons, and various other forest-based species (I did hear White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Rufous Piha from the car…).
Swifts: As in this seems to be a good place to watch them. In addition to White-collared and Costa Rican Swifts, we also had Lesser Swallow-tailed, Chestnut-collared, and at least one likely Spot-fronted. It was a tail view of a silent bird but it wasn’t a Chaetura and flew different from White-collared and Chestnut-collared.
Trails:There are a couple, one going up a hill and the other going down to the base of a beautiful waterfall. The one going up the hill passes through nice forest along a stream for a bit before making a steep ascent. We didn’t do that ascent but had some nice species near the stream (the ones mentioned above). The other trail goes through thick, viney forest for a short ways. The rest of the birding we did was on the entrance road to the lodge. That was fine with several second growth species and some canopy birds including Rufous-breasted and Black-bellied Wrens (Riverside is everywhere), Cocoa Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Piculet, and others.
There is also a long, bridge to the waterfall.
The road there: The road to Londres is pretty good but once you get past there, you really need four wheel drive. During really heavy rains, I could see that road being impassible. The challenging part of the drive up also coincides with the best habitat.
Accommodating:The ecolodge was very accommodating and were willing to make us coffee at dawn. Since we didn’t want them to have to come all the way up there at dawn just to make us coffee (we didn’t schedule breakfast until 8:30), we asked them to make coffee the evening before and leave it in a thermos along with cups. They did just that, always served good, home-cooked food, and were always attentive to our needs. Rooms were also clean and were equipped with fans.
One of the cabins.
This site would be a good day visit from the Manuel Antonio area, especially the mature forest on the road up. I suspect that the views over forest are better in the Esquipulas area but it would be interesting to see what could be found on the road to Campesinos. Whether visiting either site, Johan Chaves would be one of the guides to go with from the Manuel Antonio area. See my eBird list from Saturday at Campesinos.