On Sunday, I took a trip to Chomes and the Colorado salt pans with a friend of mine to look for shorebirds, to look for the Maguari Stork that showed up on September 16th, and get recordings and digiscoped shots of various feathered creatures. Although every trip to that area has been good, this one leaves me convinced that the Chomes area is a true birding hotspot. While the shrimp ponds, mangroves, and mud flats always turn up a fair variety of waders, the road in to Chomes also deserves just as much attention.
We were sort of in a hurry to reach the shrimp ponds on Sunday morning to catch as much of the high tide as possible but couldn’t help but make a few stops on the way in. The road is always productive because it goes through several kilometers of fields dotted with a good number of tall trees, a couple of nice riparian zones, and wide open areas that sometimes have mud flats. The variety of habitats makes it good for just about every dry forest species and on past trips we have seen such goodies as Yellow-naped Parrots, Crane Hawk, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and many other birds. On this trip, the few stops we made turned up great looks at Spot-breasted Oriole, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Gartered Trogon, Orange-fronted Parakeet, White-fronted Parrot, and several other bird species seen without even trying.
The best sightings along the road in were a field with 15 or so Double-striped Thick-Knees and prolonged, wonderful looks at Lesser Ground-Cuckoo.
Although the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo is a common bird, its love of skulking in dense brushy habitat presents obvious challenges to seeing it so it was very nice to be able to hang out and admire the yellow and blue colors of its eyering combined with the pumpkin orange underparts.
It vocalized too and started out with its distinctive song.
Then, it gave its soft whistled call over and over as Boat-billed Flys decided to go nuts with their own vocalizations.
It then showed how nice it was by fluttering up to a tree and creeping along a branch with raised tail.
Although I will be missing a crisp and spooky North American Halloween, the colors of a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo are a fine substitute. Now all I need to do is buy some candy corn and corn syrup creation pumpkin candies and munch on them while visually absorbing a Lesser Ground Cuckoo on October 31st…all while dressed like a vampire, a politician bought by big money who allows the government to shut down while still taking a paycheck, or some other frightening creature.
Keep in mind that we barely birded the entrance road and still had several choice avian experiences. Now back at the shrimp ponds, the birding was also pretty good. A handful of flint-headed Wood Storks was all we got in terms of Cicconidae but we couldn’t help but be impressed by the constant bird action. Small groups of chattering (or ratatatting) White-fronted Parrots flew overhead, flocks of seedeaters flushed from the undergrowth, the metallic calls of a Blue Grosbeak contrasted with the buzzy notes of a few Dickcissels, and so on. A group of seedeaters suddenly revealed themselves to be Tricolored Munias (most being hen colored or perhaps juvenile birds), and one of our target birds called from the short Black Mangroves. Clapper Rail! Scan as we might, we couldn’t find the rails and they only called twice but since I count heard only birds for my country list, on it they went!
Shorebirds were also around but heavy rains had drowned the erstwhile mud flat habitat in the ponds and so most of our sandpipers and plovers were scattered far and wide over the honest to goodness mud flats of the Golf of Nicoya. Nevertheless, in the ponds, we still got good looks at several herons, White Ibis, and common shorebirds like Least Sands, Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers, Black-necked Stilt, Willet, and Whimbrel, and one uncommon American Golden Plover.
Out by the shore, there was also a good sized flock of Black Skimmers, some Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwits, a couple of American Oystercatchers, a distant flock of terns (Royals, some Elegants, a few Sandwich, and one Common), and a few Short-billed Dowitchers.
We then braved the rising heat (Chomes is blazing- come prepared!) to head down the track that parallels the beach and ends at a nice patch of mangroves. Pygmy-owl calls turned up Streak-backed Oriole, Northern Scrub Flycatchers, American Redstart, and several other species.
Vying with the Mangrove Hummingbird for best bird in that area was a Rufous-necked Wood Rail! The bird was heard (and happily recorded!), and it even allowed itself to be seen very well as it hopped up and walked on a branch! I wish I could show that I was quick on the digiscoping draw for that photo opp but I wasn’t. Photo bomb it wasn’t but still a fine view of a Rufous-necked Wood Rail nonetheless. With that bird, I am just two rails away from getting a full run of Costa Rican rail species this year! Granted, some are heard only but I still count them for the year list. If I manage Spotted and Sora (both are feasible), 2013 will be my one and only official year of the rail.
After nearly melting at a mid-day Chomes we grabbed a quick lunch somewhere along the highway and headed over to the Colorado salt pans to see what was up. It was fairly birdy but no hoped for Long-billed Curlew nor any other new species for the year. After once again ignoring any possible Masked Ducks (snicker all you want you feathered, skulking, web-footed zorros…your time will come!), we headed back up into the rain, cooler elevations, and over population of the Central Valley.
So, if there’s going to be any point to this story, it’s that the Chomes area is really good for birding. Get there early and bird that road in. Although I have yet to fully explore the area and riparian zones on the way in, I wouldn’t be surprised if they even turned up things like Thicket Tinamou, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and so on.
Green space is where the birds are and that’s why I drive 45 minutes up to Poas Volcano. That’s one of the closest places with intact forest habitat and the birding is always good. Between the house and Poas, there are riparian zones that snake through coffee plantations but that habitat is rather inaccessible compared to the highland forests on Poas. This past Tuesday, after dropping off Miranda at pre-K, I decided to do the trip to Poas in search of migrants, photos of various species ,and maybe a recording or two. Most birds are vocalizing much less now compared to the months of February, March, and April but I still managed a recording a the resident Red-tailed Hawk subspecies and will be including that on the next update of our Costa Rica birding app (coming soon and with a bunch of new species and vocalizations).
On the way up to the volcano, I made a few stops at groves of Guatemalan Cypress. Although these introduced species don’t harbor as many birds as native vegetation I always check them in the hope of finding Hermit, Townsend’s, or even Golden-cheeked Warblers and other rare vagrants. Although the fact that these are rare birds indeed is reflected by never finding any of those species in those introduced evergreens, that doesn’t stop me from looking and I bet there are some uber rarities out there somewhere. Just gotta keep checking and pishing.
Speaking of pishing, the bird that invariably shows up in high elevation habitats of Costa Rica is the cheeky Wilson’s Warbler. This blocky headed wood warbler just might be the most common species in the highlands during the winter months. While pishing in one spot on Tuesday, I brought up a veritable parade of around 30 of them along with just one Black and white and one Blackburnian.
In addition to looking for migrant warblers, I also saw a bunch of nice resident species including several flocks of Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers.
I also saw some Commons and they do seem to be creeping upward in elevation bit by bit. The bush-tanagers were super busy with feeding on small fruits and were occasionally joined by Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers and a few other birds (although no Spangle-cheeks- a bird I was hoping for). One of those birds was Golden-browed Chlorophonia. I usually hear several of this gorgeous little thing while birding on Poas but they can be hard to see well. Fortunately, a couple of these technicolor goldfinches were busy feeding on berries in a short bush and stayed still long enough for proper digiscoping.
Those same bushes were also flowering and filled with hummingbirds. A conservative estimate was 6 Fiery-throateds, 4 Magnificents, 6 Purple-throated Mountain-gems, and 4 Volcano Hummingbirds. Of course, several Slaty Flowerpiercers were also taking advantage of the nectar bonanza.
Up near the entrance to the park, a pair of Large-footed Finches hopped right out and foraged along the side of the road. I swear, you just never know when these over-sized ground sparrows are going to come out into the open. When guiding birders up that way, we usually get the Large-footed Finch but it can take a while and they rarely forage on the curb.
The entrance to the park can also be good for mixed flocks and Tuesday delivered with a flock that held Buffy Tuftedcheek, Collared Redstart, bush tanagers, and other species.
Oddly enough, although the bamboo in the understory of that area is totally seeding, I haven’t heard a single Peg-billed Finch or other bamboo bird there despite checking several times. Maybe I need to focus on the area a bit more to see if I can rustle up a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove (a rarity I have only seen once ever during a bamboo seeding event on Chirripo in 1994). Only species I did hear in the bamboo was a Wrenthrush. Hopefully, the next post about Poas will report Slaty Finch and other choice bamboo birds!
I am pretty sure that the Lands in Love Hotel has the potential for being one of the best places for birding the Caribbean slope foothills (if not the best). You probably haven’t heard of this place as a Costa Rican birding destination because it’s mostly been marketed for the average tourist, and isn’t situated on the main birding tour circuit. Well, as someone who has birded for years in most parts of Costa Rica, I have to say that birding tours and birders visiting Costa Rica might be very pleased indeed to include this place and nearby sites on their itineraries.
I first became aware of the potential at Lands in Love during a brief sort of non-birding visit about 4 years ago when a short walk in the forest produced sightings of a Great Curassow, and large numbers of common yet pleasing edge species (such as Crimson-collared Tanager and Gray-headed Chachalaca) were easily seen from the rooms. I was also impressed by the large amount of primary forest near the hotel and the ability to scan the canopy and skies above said forest. Although I have brought clients to the delicious LoveEats cafe for lunch and tanagers on many occasions, I had yet to go back and actually stay at the hotel until this past weekend. Well, now I can’t wait to go back because the birding was just as good as I had hoped. We would have seen much more if rain hadn’t put a stop to birding one afternoon and most of the following morning but here are some highlights and reasons why I recommend staying there for three to five nights:
- Quality habitat means quality birds: The road down to the lodge passes through young and older second growth, some of it connected to a large area of primary forest. Trails pass through some old second growth but mostly access beautiful foothill primary rainforest. Habitat is also growing up right around the rooms. This translates to excellent birding opportunities almost everywhere you look and a selection of species that includes edge birds like Tropical Pewee, second growth species such as Thicket Antpitta and Black-throated Wren, and old growth bird species such as Streak-crowned Antvireo, etc., etc. and so on. In being located at around 400 meters elevation, the lodge also has a nice mix of lowland and foothill birds.
- Indications of a healthy forest ecosystem: During just a couple of walks on the forest trails, we ran into three or four understory mixed flocks, each with such indicator species of quality forest as White-flanked Antwren and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Both of these birds have become much less common in Costa Rica and seem susceptible to edge effects. We also saw two different canopy flocks of large birds, one of which had 10 or so Black-mandibled Toucans. The presence of canopy flocks of large birds is another indicator of a healthy forest.
- Views into the canopy: There are several places where you can scope the canopy both near and far. We found White Hawk, parrots, and toucans this way but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to also see rarities like Lovely Cotinga, hawk-eagles, and who knows what else. We didn’t do so great on raptors but since the weather wasn’t exactly conducive for soaring birds, that wasn’t too surprising.
- Quality service and organization: The hotel was organized at every point of our trip and provided wonderful service.
- Excellent vegetarian food: I love the food at this place! Although I am not a vegetarian, I could be if I had the chance to eat food like the wonderful dishes they serve. Good variety and the continental breakfast is probably one of the better ones in the country.
- Access: Lands in Love is also simple to access. Just take the main highway from San Ramon to La Fortuna and watch for signs on the right. It’s only a half hour or so from San Ramon and maybe an hour and a half from San Jose on good, paved roads.
- Near other good sites: Several other good birding sites are a 30 minute drive from the hotel, including the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, the Cocora hummingbird garden, and Finca Luna Nueva.
Ok, so now the real reason why birders should stay there for several nights. Here are our top ten species from a couple days of birding, and keep in mind that we got rained out for almost half the time:
1. Sunbittern: A pair foraging on the lawn near the reception on one morning! Staff mentioned that they seen Sunbittern most days at the hotel.
2. Black and white Owl: A quick owl search turned up nothing the first night but the second eventually resulted in hearing three Black and white Owls and seeing one right at the rooms.
3. White Hawk: Rather expected there but it’s still nice!
4. Crested Guan: Quite a few of these around, even at the rooms.
5. Snowcap: Yes, Snowcap and right at the rooms! We had at least four different birds.
6. Short-tailed Nighthawk: One flying right around the rooms.
7. Antwrens and antvireos: A good place to see these.
8. Sepia-capped Flycatcher: We had at least two of this rare species for Costa Rica. New country bird for me!
9. Scarlet-thighed Dacnis: These are fairly common at many sites but always great to see.
10. Lanceolated Monklet: Yep, that’s right. Saving the best for last, we got this very rare bird! To give an idea of how tough it is to encounter this species, I have looked for and whistled like one at many sites in Costa Rica for more than ten years sans results. After noticing that the hanging bridge at Lands in Love looked perfect for this sneaky little puffbird, I decided that the group should go there shortly after dawn on Sunday morning. Not long after arrival, I heard one vocalize and tried calling it in. It took a while to find the bird but I eventually did and we got so-so looks in dark, misty weather before rains convinced us to head back to the hotel. The old growth forest at that spot also looked good for all sorts of things!
Speaking of other avian things, check out the quality on the bird list compiled for the place by Jim Zook (notice the ground-cuckoo and Keel-billed Motmot). We had four or five species not on the list and I suspect that several other species can show up, including Lovely Cotinga and Bare-necked Umbrellabird. I hope to talk to them soon to see about details on day trips to the hotel trails and hope to do some surveys.
To listen to a taste of the dawn chorus near the rooms, check this out:
This one has Thicket Antpitta, Clay-colored Thrush, Bright-rumped Attila, Howler Monkey, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, and a distant Slaty Antshrike: Dawn 1 Lands in Love
The hotel doesn’t have feeders nor people checking for owls, fruiting trees, and antswarms yet but the birding is still great. Rooms are nice too although I think they could use air conditioning rather than fans. Showers just might be the best in the country!
A couple of choice South American waterbirds have shown up in Panama and Costa Rica within the past few months. Both are common species in the llanos of Venezuela and Colombia and that’s about the closest they normally come to Central America. Oh yeah, and both also happen to be new records for each country as well as North America! The heron was found by three guides and a friend who frequently show birds to people in Costa Rica and elsewhere. It sounds like they were the only people who got to see it but they also got photos and picked up a Gray-hooded Gull near Panama City at the start of their trip. Check out Kevin Easley’s report.
That was back in July. Fast forward to September and we have another bird that shares much of its habitat and range with the Whistling Heron, but this time, the North American first showed up in Costa Rica. While visiting the shorebird hotspot of Chomes on September 16th, Victor Leiton, Jim Zook, and other local birders noted a large, strange stork. It wasn’t a Wood Stork and it wasn’t a Jabiru so they knew it had to be something good. Not long after, they realized that they had found a Maguari Stork! Several other people chased it the next day but came home empty handed (although most picked up Clapper Rail- an excellent species for Costa Rica). I would have gone too but was guiding in the foothill rainforests near Lands in Love (good day with nice mixed flocks and great looks for the client at niceties such as Blue and gold Tanager, White-throated Shrike Tanger, Black and yellow Tanager, lots of Emerald Tanagers, Black-throated Wren, and so on).
I hope the stork sticks around and won’t be too surprised if it is re-found in Palo Verde or other wetland sites in Guanacaste. I plan on looking for it when I get the chance even though that might not be for another two weeks. Although both of these vagrants turned up a few months apart, since they occur in the same habitat and region, I can’t help but wonder if they wandered for similar reasons. Waterbirds are prone to doing some post-breeding wandering so perhaps they have turned up on very rare occasions in the past but no one was there to see them? This is very possible given the much lower coverage of various birding sites compared to Great Britain and many parts of the USA and southern Canada. Or, perhaps poor feeding conditions urged these hungry birds to wander far and wide? Whatever the case, it’s a reminder to know what might be waiting out there in the field and to be ready for rarities. By definition, vagrant bird species aren’t likely to be encountered but knowing what might show up will help you identify those choice birds if you get lucky enough to see or hear them.
Both of these birds were wake up calls because neither of them had made it onto my list of possible vagrants. I suppose I will have to edit the list to include such possibilities as White-faced Whistling Duck and Whispering Ibis. I should also mention that another bird from the llanos, Large-billed Tern, also showed up in Nicaragua in August and thus likely flew over Costa Rica! It’s also ready on the CR list but would still be a fantastic record. That said, these are my top candidates for additions to the Costa Rica bird list in no particular order:
1. Gadwall: Nearly every other duck has shown up and given the large population and a wintering range that reaches southern Mexico, it seems like this one is due.
2. Double-crested Cormorant: Waterbirds wander and it seems like this one should show up sometime on the Caribbean coast.
3. Lesser Black-backed Gull and Black-tailed Gull: Just two of a few gulls that could certainly turn up in Costa Rica.
4. Black-chinned Hummingbird: I bet that this species has overshot and wandered down to Costa Rica and even if one or two did so every year, what’s the chance that someone would happen to find that one bird and realize that it wasn’t the very similar and common Ruby-throated Hummingbird? Other hummingbirds that could also turn up are Calliope and Lucifer Hummingbirds.
5. Hammond’s Flycatcher: This little flycatcher is pretty much at the top of my list. Like such warblers as Towsend’s and Hermit, it normally winters to northern Nicaragua. Unlike them, it would be very easy to overlook unless you knew what to look for and could just as easily pass the winter months in patches of non-native evergreens that receive very little coverage.
6. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher: Seems like this common bird could overshoot and fly further south than Honduras, the typical limit of its wintering range.
7. Cassin’s Vireo: Although this vireo normally only winters to Oaxaca, Mexico, it seems like it could head further south. In fact, the one possible Blue-headed Vireo that I saw in Costa Rica could have very well been a Cassin’s. I got pretty good looks at it and unfortunately, it was one of those individuals that could have been a Blue-headed or a Cassin’s due to little contrast between the gray on its head and white on its throat. In fact, the lack of contrast, drab colors, and experience with both species made me actually lean towards Cassin’s then and I still do but without very good photos, I can’t say for sure what it was!
Those are just some of the birds that could make it onto the list. There are others and it will be interesting to see what turns up next.
I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:
After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.
We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.
Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.
A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.
Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.
Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).
Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!
We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.
It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.
Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).
The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.
Here is the list for the day:
|Black Vulture||White-throated Crake|
|Turkey Vulture||Bare-shanked Screech Owl|
|White Hawk||Immaculate Antbird|
|Black Guan||Silvery-fronted Tapaculo|
|Rock Pigeon||Paltry Tyrannulet|
|White-winged Dove||Common Tody-Flycatcher|
|Crimson-fronted Parakeet||Social Flycatcher|
|White-crowned Parrot||Barred Becard|
|Costa Rican Pygmy Owl||Plain Wren|
|Green Hermit||Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush|
|Stripe-throated Hermit||Rufous-capped Warbler|
|Scaly-breasted Hummingbird||Yellow-faced Grassquit|
|Violet Sabrewing||Sooty-faced Finch|
|Brown Violetear||Black-cowled Oriole|
|Green Violetear||Yellow-bellied Siskin|
|Purple-throated Mountain Gem|
|White-bellied Mountain Gem|
|Ruddy Treerunner (bad look)|
|Gray-breasted Wood Wren|
August has been pretty good for birding in Costa Rica. The rains haven’t been to bad and there have been quite a few highlights. As for myself, I even managed to pick up a lifer and a few more year birds.
- Over at Rancho Naturalista, much to the happiness of lucky visiting birders, a few White-crested Coquettes were present! Although this species is much more regular in the humid south Pacific region, it also shows up in the Central Valley as a rare but regular seasonal migrant (at least that’s what we assume is going on).
- Shorebirds have been showing up, including such uncommon species for the country as Dunlin and Long-billed Curlew. I still need the curlew for my country list so I’m itching to head down to Chomes and see some shorebirds! Finding a Curlew Sandpiper or some other rarity would also be nice…
- Two more birds for the Costa Rica list: Eastern Phoebe and White-cheeked Pintail! Both of these accidental vagrants were found in a series of photos taken at Isla del Coco. Now, all we need is a vagrant Say’s to get the Sayornis trifecta for the country. As for the pintail, it came from the Galapagos (Cocos is half way to that famed archipelago) and I bet it has shown up on Cocos before but no one was there to see it.
- This past August, I also posted about a few things:
Some Highlights from Good Rainy Birding on the Manuel Brenes Reserve Road
- As for the lifer, that was an Oilbird (!), a major birding coup for a Costa Rica list. Although Oilbirds have been found at Monteverde in the past, they never seemed to stay very long. This year, several stayed long enough for me to find a couple of days to head up that way and see it (actually 3!) in the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.
- The Nature Pavilion recently made it onto the list of sustainable tours at the Rainforest Alliance. This is well deserved because these guys aren’t only about fantastic bird photography. They also do tree planting tours, a much needed activity for many parts of the country. If we could just establish more biological corridors and do a bit more reforestation, maybe we could change the Bare-necked Umbrellabird’s ICUN endangered status (and yes, it is most certainly endangered due to deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica).
- eBird now has a portal for Central America!
Birding is often unpredictable especially when looking for all things avian in complex tropical habitats. That seems to be the rule whenever I go birding in the rich foothill rainforests of Braulio Carillo National Park. For example, if someone were to ask me about the chances of seeing Black-headed Nightingale Thrush at Quebrada Gonzalez, I would say that yes, although they are fairly shy, expect to hear them and careful searching should turn up sightings of a bird or two. That answer is based on years of experience at the site but during a mid-morning visit last week, guess which bird failed to make a peep? I still got in some nice birding with a couple of healthy mixed flocks and close looks at Dull-mantled Antbird but the unpredictable nature of birding in the tropics was the rule of the day.
While that “birding law” makes every visit to rainforest an exciting one, having a bird just show up when and where you hope it will is a very welcome occurrence. It’s even better when the bird sticks around after driving through pouring tropical rain for a couple of hours, but the icing on the brownie is when the bird also happens to be a rare lifer. The lifer in this case was the Oilbird and seeing one in Costa Rica was one of the more satisfying personal birding coupes de grace I have experienced.
Here are a few reasons why seeing an Oilbird on Saturday night was such a satisfying accomplishment:
- The Oilbird is a one of a kind avian weirdo: Nope, I can’t mince words when it comes to the Oilbird. This nightjarish thing is the only member of its avian family and with good reason. Like some feathered troll, it lives in caves or very dark ravines, makes weird clicking and grunting noises, and only comes out at night. Fortunately, although it sounds like a vampire, this wonderful wacky creature only feasts on fruit. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like some sort of big, feathered fruit bat.
- The Oilbird is indeed oily: Side effects from gorging themselves on fatty fruits (think mini avocados) are an equally fatty physiology. It’s more pronounced in the youngsters and because of this, Oilbirds were formerly harvested and rendered into fat.
- Lifer!: Although I have heard Oilbirds once or twice during the night near Jatun Sacha, Ecuador, I had yet to actually see one. I figured that might eventually happen at a cave in maybe Ecuador or Trinidad but no point in betting on unlikely travel when you can see them right here in Costa Rica! Are they vagrants? Do they migrate to Costa Rica on a regular basis? Although I suspect that the latter is the case, no one really knows what’s going on with Oilbirds in Costa Rica except that they have showed up around Monteverde in August for the past few years. This year, several birds have been seen just about every night, so, when a small window of opportunity presented itself, I took the chance and the chase was a success!
- Not quite a chase but an adventure none the less with a long drive to get there: Actually, to be honest, this was about as far from a chase for a bird as one could get (and I was very fine with that). On Saturday, after realizing that driving up to and spending the night around Monteverde was a possibility, I called Robert Dean to see if the birds were still around. He then made a call to someone in the know and got back to me with the answer I was looking for. An hour later, I was out the door and driving down to the coast. Near Puntarenas, pouring rain slowed me down but I was still on time (had to make it to Robert’s by 6 PM). After watching a few drivers take unnecessary risks at passing slow vehicles in places where they couldn’t really see who might be coming in the other direction (including speeding buses and massive Mack trucks), I was very pleased to leave the madness of the Pan American highway and start driving uphill. Although that pleasant drive lost its happiness when the pavement was replaced by pot holes and stones, luckily, I still had plenty of time to make it to Robert’s because my speed was reduced to an average of 15 or 20 kilometers an hour (which also of course makes that portion of the trip seem to last an eon or two).
I shouldn’t complain, though, because the road up to Monteverde used to be much worse. Made it up to Robert’s by 5:30, he showed me some of the paintings for the second version of the Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (which look fantastic by the way), and we left for the Oilbird show by 6:15.
- Didn’t have to look for the bird: Some birders will say that they like to find their own birds or whatever. Well, that pride of finding their own birds will probably get tossed into an ethereal trash basket when asked if they would (1) like to spend hours, days, or years to look for a needle in a tropical forest haytstack, or if (2) they wouldn’t mind being shown the bird by someone else after a ten minute walk. Yeah, if you don’t mind, I’ll take option number two please at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.
Thanks to Robert being an insider around there, the reception got in touch with one of the main guides, he came and met us a few minutes later, and then we walked off with him into the dark on an easy, well maintained trail. A short ten minutes later, we come to a group looking at something up in the trees. Robert say, “There it is!” and yes, there it was!
Just like that, I got my lifer Oilbird. Too easy you say? Ha! Getting a lifer is NEVER too easy in the unpredictable tropics. It’s never too easy when the bird in question is a rare, even more unpredictable, nocturnal oddity. Give me easy lifers any day of the week because I don’t have too many more to get in Costa Rica. After watching the first bird for a while, we walked on and got great looks at two more Oilbirds. All of them were quiet, perched birds that slowly moved back and forth with these odd hypnotic movements (hmmm, maybe they are vampires after all..). We also got to see one of them cough up a seed, saw roosting toucans, and two beautiful green Side-striped Pit Vipers (lifer snake, hell yeah!) all in about 40 minutes. I have to mention that Oilbirds aside, the night walk at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge might be the best I have ever seen and other experienced travelers have said the same. The guides are great, keep track of what is seen, and are in constant communication by walkie-talkie so if one group sees something, the others can as well. It also looks like an excellent place to go birding during the day- hope to do that some time!
I probably should have birded the refuge the next morning but the afterglow of getting my lifer Oilbird left me with such a subdued, easy-going demeanor that I felt fine with merely watching the darn House Wrens singing in the backyard. Well, at least I remembered to take a few pictures of some other birds too.
Oh, and no trip to the Monteverde area is complete without a stop at one of the best bakeries in the country, Stella’s Bakery! I already regret not having bought a dozen of those fantastic brownies.
Birding in the tropical zone is not the same as watching birds in the temperate zone. However, the huge and tantalizing array of interesting birds that will never be seen near a North American or European home comes with a price: a lot of them are just tough to see! Unlike the easy-going spring or early summer birding in the coniferous and broad-leafed forests of the north, you can come on down to Costa Rica, stalk along a trail through rainforest where 300 species have been recorded, and actually see three or four birds over the course of an hour. When that happens, you can’t help but wonder, “Where the hell are the birds?”, especially because you are hearing so many of them.
I’ve blogged about these differences in the past but here are a few more things to keep in mind before heading to Costa Rica for a birding trip:
- Waterfowl: As in the paucity of ducks and total absence of geese and swans. Unlike the duck-filled marches and lakes of higher latitudes, we have just three species of commonly occurring web-footed quackers. That trio of Anseriformes are the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, the Muscovy Duck, and the Blue-winged Teal. While several other species of northern ducks can and do turn up, they aren’t very common and are the exception. To give an idea of why Costa Rica is not the place to visit for watching waterfowl, us local birders are stoked if such rarities as Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, or Northern Shoveler make an appearance. So, don’t worry about looking for ducks when birding Costa Rica (not that many visiting birders do anyways).
- Challenging Mixed Flocks: If you get a joyous Passerine kick when watching chickadee-led flocks of warblers, get ready for larger, more complex, and heart pounding groups of birds that race through the high canopy and dim understory of tropical forests! Dreamy mixed flocks are a typical aspect of birding in tropical habitats but yes, here comes another catch- they don’t come easy! In other words, the understory antwrens, antvireos, flycatchers, and such move through the lower levels of the forest in seriously stealthy mode. They are quiet, take their time, and don’t exactly stand out from the various dull shades of rainforest green. Meanwhile, up there in the 40 meter high canopy, tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species rush through the foliage like a starving, hyperactive horde. It’s common to see only a few birds well, to get looks at pieces of various species as they forage in bromeliads and other vegetated cubby holes, and miss most of the birds in the flock. However, do not despair! Follow those flocks until you can position yourself where they will pass by at eye level or in good light and you might eventually get looks at all of the birds in the flock and find that crazy Sharpbill or rarely seen Gray-headed Piprites.
- Poor views: See Challenging Mixed Flocks above! Away from mixed flocks, you will run into frustrating moments when birds are hidden by leaves, epiphytes, and other proliferations of vegetative matter. You will hear but not see many a bird. Birds will also be back-lit and thus turned into silhouettes even after you have contorted your neck in ways that resemble novel vogue dancing or yoga positions. Instead of being frustrated, just use that fine Brooklyn Zenish adage of “Forget about it” (in an accent from Far Rockaway or Bensonhurst of course) and re-position yourself on higher ground or another part of the trail to blaze the corneas with properly colored and detailed birds. Once that happens, you can once again exclaim “Forget about it!!”, but this time as a victory cry.
- Study some vocalizations: If you can learn at least some of the songs and calls for most of Costa Rica’s birds, that would be ideal. However, since learning the songs of 600 plus species a few months before a trip is rather daunting for the majority of flocks (except Felonious Jive because that birding genius already has innate knowledge of all bird calls), you might want to pick out a 100 or so of the most common species and focus on those. That will ready your ears to help detect the uncommon or rare birds if and when they do show up, and will enrich your Costa Rican birding experience. The Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app can help in this and other regards in preparing for your trip.
- Tough understory things: While the temperate zone has its fair share of understory birds, believe me when I say that the birds up there are absolute rookies when it comes to staying hidden on or near the forest floor! Tinamous, quail-doves, wood-quails, antpittas, antthrushes, leaftossers, and ground-cuckoos can’t help but laugh with disdain at the Ovenbird and grouse as they make amateur attempts to avoid being detected. They do, however, give much respect to that master creeper known as the Connecticut Warbler. A post about looking for tinamous will give you some tips on seeing them although your chances will be highest if you hire an experienced local guide.
As you might infer from this post, birding in Costa Rica might not be as easy as watching birds near home BUT it will be very rewarding when you keep seeing new species every day of your trip!
A few days ago, birding friend Susan and I did some morning birding on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve in the foothills of the Tilaran Mountains. I have yet to make it all the way to the reserve (which is a private reserve for the University of Costa Rica in any case) but the main reason I have never ventured that far is because you can stick to the first 3 or 4 kilometers of the road and have yourself some might fine and fantastic birding. As with any tropical forest site, the birds you come across can vary from one day to the next but spend a few mornings on that road and you are bound to see something good. Crested Eagle has been seen there in the past and such uncommon species as Sharpbill, Tiny Hawk, Purplish-backed Quail Dove, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, and Blue and gold Tanager are regular.
The road goes through good foothill forest and although the absence of trails into the forest is a disadvantage, you can still see into the understory in many areas. The road is best done with four wheel drive, or (even better) on foot. The road eventually leads to cultivations of ornamental plants and there aren’t any buildings, stores, or other facilities but that’s why the birding is so good. On Sunday, we had a cloudy, misty, rainy morning in that order but still wonderful birding with the following highlights:
- Good looks at a male Three-wattled Bellbird: I often hear this crazy cotinga at this site but it usually stays out of view. Thankfully, on Sunday, one male perched right in the open and entertained us with its wacky, loud vocalizations (wacky sounds of a bellbird with a Hepatic Tanager thrown in for kicks) as various tanagers and other mixed flock species moved through the trees.
- Great mixed flocks: We ran into 3 or 4 mixed flocks, one of which had at least 60 to 70 birds. Bad lighting and a high canopy ensured that we missed getting good looks at most of the species in the flocks but they were still fun to watch and included such goodies as White-throated Shrike Tanager, Blue and gold Tanager, Orange-bellied Trogon, Emerald Tanager, Black and yellow Tanager, and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.
- Black Hawk Eagle: We got pretty nice looks at one molting bird in the pouring rain.
- Crested Guans: Had a few of these and not uncommon while birding in Costa Rica but always good to see.
- Purplish-backed Quail Dove: A heard only but that’s still nice. Almost always hear this species in this area.
- Dull-mantled Antbird: A pair heard calling was a nice addition to the morning.
- Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo: Wait…what?!? Yep, saving the best for last, we heard an RVGC calling four or five times! I have only heard this species call once before in the wild but it makes a pretty diagnostic, slightly rising, dove-like sound. We positioned ourselves to look into the forest and used playback of both the dove-like song and bill clacks but got no response. The bird stopped calling once we used playback though and given the low frequency of its song, I couldn’t tell how far it was. May have been close or could have been a hundred meters into the forest. No antswarms around either, just a calling mega cuckoo. Sounded exactly like Andrew Spencer’s fine recording posted at Xeno Canto:
So, we departed the road in pouring rain around 11 and headed down the highway to find a gas station. In a show of the microclimates common in montane areas, it was bright, dry, and sunny down that way! We then headed back up to the LoveEats cafe for a delicious lunch and watched for soaring raptors and other species visible from the cafe.
No Solitary Eagle or other rarity but we did pick up Gray Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and saw pretty birds like Green Honeycreeper, Crimson-collared Tanager, and others near the cafe.
After driving back up hill, we once again found the rain and headed on back to the Central Valley.
A link to the eBird checklist from that memorable morning : http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14975216
Birding Field Guides releases Second Version of Birdwatching app for Costa Rica
For Immediate Release: August 20, 2013
The first birding app for Costa Rica is a digital field guide replete with photos, sounds, text, and range maps for more than 500 bird species.
San Jose, Costa Rica – The second version of the Costa Rica Birds-Field Guide app became available in the iTunes Store in July, 2013. This is the second version of the only app and digital field guide completely focused on bird species of Costa Rica.
Since the 1990s, Costa Rica has been an important destination for ecotourists, especially those who enjoy birdwatching. As birding has increased in popularity as a hobby, increasing numbers of birders have made their way to Costa Rica. This small Central American country appeals to birdwatchers and ecotourists on account of its stable, democratic government, and protected areas that host hundreds of bird species, including such exotic stunners as toucans, macaws, parrots, the fantastic Resplendent Quetzal, and over 50 species of hummingbirds.
This second version of the Costa Rica Birds-Field Guide app has been updated with information and images for more than 520 species of birds that occur in Costa Rica and vocalizations for more than 320 species. Other new features include a full checklist of Costa Rican birds that can be edited and emailed, and improved search options. The new “Which Bird is it?” function lets app users take pictures and make recordings of birds that are then automatically sent to the people at Birding Field Guides for identification.
Michael Mullin, head of programming for Birding Field Guides, expects that the new features and additional species will make it easier for tourists and residents of Costa Rica to identify and learn about the many birds that are seen and heard while visiting this biodiverse country.
He said, “The updates in this second version were designed to provide the visitor to Costa Rica with more information about the country’s bird species as well as make it easier to identify and learn about them. We plan to continue updating the app with images, information, and vocalizations of additional species before the end of 2013”.
The app is currently available for version 4.3 or higher iPod Touch and iPhone devices.
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.
To learn more about this product, please contact
Patrick O’Donnell, Media Relations
Casa 30e, Condominio Colonial
Santa Barbara, Costa Rica
Office: (506) 8318-3329