The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is pretty good about coming up with ideas for research and bird conservation. Well, no, more like fantastic when it comes to many things avian and the latest endeavor was one heck of a successful ride. Known as the Global Big Day, it started out as an idea for a Big Day in Panama done by Team Sapsucker and one of the head guides from the Canopy Tower family, Carlos Bethancourt. But why do just one Big day when other birders can be encouraged to do the same and enter their results into eBird? Maybe enough birders around the world would participate to identify 4,000 species in one calendar day? Maybe the lab could also raise much needed funds for avian research and conservation?
All that birders had to do was go birding on May 9th and submit the results to eBird. They could just count the birds in the backyard, spend a morning at a favorite patch, or go for broke on a 24 hour birding marathon. As befits their modus operandi, Team Sapsucker of course went for the latter option and ended up with a whopping 320 species! Not only was this a new Big Day record for Panama, but it was also one of the highest Big Day totals ever, and the highest species count for the Global Big Day. But, they weren’t the only people out watching birds on May 9th, 2015. According to eBird, more than 13,000 people heeded the call to watch birds and submit their results, and instead of 4,000 species, nearly 6,000 species have been identified!
In Costa Rica, birders in most parts of the country participated, including a team of guides that identified 308 species on a route that went from Braulio Carrillo and La Selva up and over the mountains to Carara. Although I wish I could say that Susan Blank and I broke 300 species, that goal was made impossible by inclement weather. If it weren’t for a full night and morning of light wind and varying amounts of rain, I daresay that it is very likely that we would have surpassed 300 species by the end of the day because despite the very diminished dawn chorus, we still finished with 230 species.
Although we briefly pondered the notion of leaving at eleven pm to try for nightbirds en route to Pocosol, it seemed more logical (and comfortable) to head to Pocosol the day before for a bit of scouting and good night’s sleep. After all, we planned on nightbirding at Pocosol anyways and it’s a good spot for Mottled, Crested, Spectacled, and Black and White Owl. During that bit of scouting, we discovered that a tiny wetland in San Ramon was even tinier and almost bereft of birds, found a carcass with a King Vulture right on our route, and saw that yes, indeed, the northern road to Pocosol passed through a promising mix of habitats that included second growth, patches of lower elevation forest, and offered views of forested hillsides. That birdy mix was just what I had hoped for because it would give us a chance at a wide variety of edge species and lowland birds that would be tough to encounter elsewhere on our route. The views of the hillsides also gave us a chance at raptors and other canopy species (as in..ahem..a cotinga or two).
At Pocosol itself, the station was typically birdy with two species of oropendolas coming and going, and Thicket Antpittas calling from the understory. Since it was about 5 pm, we put down the binocs, went over the plan for the following day, ate dinner, and went to bed early. This is how May 9th went:
3 am: No worries about missing any birds that might have to called at midnight because nothing with feathers was calling at 3 am. There was a light wind, misty weather, and the owls were in quiet mode. Nevertheless, we got ready and hiked on a trail back to a section of beautiful primary forest. The wet weather made it a great night for frogs but if any cuckoos were migrating overhead, their calls were drowned out by the a windy, dripping canopy.
5 am to 8:30 am: The sky was getting slightly brighter and a few birds started to vocalize. The wind and rain made it tough to hear them but I don’t think a whole lot of birds were vocalizing anyways. We ticked Rufous Motmot, Crested Guan, Golden-crowned Warbler, Mealy Parrot, and a few others but not a single woodcreeper nor many other deep forest species I had hoped to get. I realized that if the weather didn’t improve, we would be better off leaving Pocosol early to try for many of the same birds on the road to Manuel Brenes. We would certainly miss several dawn chorus species but we didn’t have much of a choice. We hiked back to the station, picking up a few more birds en route, including Black-headed Antthrush and Dull-mantled Antbird, and then picked up Great Curassow and a couple other birds on the first part of the Ridge Trail. Then, we ate breakfast as quickly as we could and started driving back out to the main road.
8:30 am to 10:00 am: Sometime during breakfast, the light rain had turned into a soaking downpour in misty surroundings. Pretty awful for birding and it stayed that way almost out to the main road. We saw very few birds but did at least pick up Eastern Kingbird where we had hoped and got a White Hawk. The rain dimished as we drove up the road and quick stops picked up Olive-throated Parakeet, as well as a few other species (but minus the Tropical Mockingbird we had seen the day before!).
10:00 am to 11:00 am: I think this is when we birded Lands in Love and since it was right when the rain stopped, we got a bunch of birds. Since we stuck to the loop road, most were second growth species but we did alright given the bad start and weather.
11:00 am to 12:30 pm: We picked up a few targets at a small lake and marsh, but the King Vulture was absent and other targets refused to call. Back on the Manuel Brenes road, though, we did pretty good and a couple of mixed flocks came through with most of our target tanagers, Brown-billed Scythebill, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Purple-crowned Fairy, Northern Schiffornis, Nightingale Wren, and even got a surprise Snowcap! This is the first time I have seen this species on that road.
12:30 pm to 3:30 pm: After the foothill forests of the Manuel Brenes road, we zipped uphill and stopped at the Cocora Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden. I had hoped that this spot would result in several cloud forest birds and it came through with flying colors. Although their primary forest is edged by cultivations on both sides, the back of the forest does connect to the cloud forests of Nectandra and the Monteverde forest complex. I hope to do a morning survey there sometime to better assess the avian potential. On Saturday, a brief 30 minute visit resulted in several targets including Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Red-faced Spinetail, White-throated Spadebill, and several other species. The hummingbird action wasn’t too impressive but we still picked up Violet Sabrewing and a couple other hummingbirds.
After Cocora, we picked up some common roadside birds like Eastern Meadowlark and Rufous-collared Sparrow, and made a quick stop in moist forest to get Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-breasted Wren, and a couple others. While driving through San Ramon, we got our hoped for flyby Crimson-fronted Parakeets, then headed downhill towards Puntarenas and Chomes. Road construction stopped us for about 15 minutes and despite taking advantage of the stop and trying for Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin, and a few others, the unexpected break was birdless. By 3:30, we made it to open and dry forest habitats on the road to Chomes.
3:30 pm to 4:30 pm: The road to Chomes was much drier than normal and there weren’t as many birds but we still managed several targets. A couple of stops in riparian zones were far too quiet and didn’t turn up the Black-headed Trogons, Olive Sparrow, and a few other species that we usually get, but we did pick up Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Streak-backed Oriole, and several other species. A stop in the open fields also worked out for the thick-knee, a distant Harris’s Hawk, our only Cliff Swallow for the day, our only Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and some other species.
4:30 pm to 6:00 pm: At Chomes, you never know what is going to show but there’s always something good. Shorebird numbers were fairly impressive but diversity was fairly low compared to other days. Nevertheless, the 12 species of shorebirds were a welcome addition along with White Ibis, Wood Stork, herons, and a few other aquatic species, a highlight being a group of Black Terns that flew in from the ocean. Just before dusk, we also got lucky with a few mangrove species, and a group of Spot-bellied Bobwhites. In fact, we continued to pick up one new species after another right until dark while watching 200 plus White-fronted Parrots flying over the mangroves. It was a memorable way to end a memorable day and although we made a brief attempt for Pacific Screech-Owl and a few other night birds, nothing called back and we called it a day by 7 pm.
Although it was downright infuriating to be rained out for the dawn chorus and the most productive part of the day, the fact that we still identified 230 species with almost no night birding and very little scouting showed that this route could definitely break the world record when wintering species are around, with more scouting, and with an obligatory lack of rain at dawn. Looking forward to the next Global Big Day! In the meantime, it’s about time that we did a Costa Rican Bird Race…
Each year, I look forward to an autonomously motivated event where myself and trusted birding companions try to see as many bird species as possible in one, 24 hour date. That is, we do a Big Day, and it is preceded by far too many hours of planning and sorting out probabilities, Such scheming is necessary because it all comes down to probability, each factor playing a distinct role in determing the final count. Regular readers of this blog will already be aware of our attempt this past March.
I think it was a good plan, that beginning in Cano Negro, a jaunt through the humid forests in the Arenal area, and a hot, dry finish at Chomes, but morning rain prevented us from giving that route the full, power birding test. Getting rained out was disappointing to say the least. Instead of testing the Big Day route, it ended up being a Zen-test of my ability to accept changes that ruined my super important plans for that one day out of the year when we could maybe break the Big Day world record..(in the famous “words” of Charlie Brown, “Arggh!”). Well, since hoping for clear weather in rainforest on just one day is always a silly gamble, I couldn’t really be that surprised or upset.
BUT, much to my surprise, thanks to Cornell Lab’s Team Sapsucker and their Global Big Day idea, here I am, once again, about to do another Big Day! The Global Big Day is the perfect excuse to give this thing another shot. With most of the small migrants serenading birders in Ohio, I did not foresee May as being an ideal time of the year for this endeavor, and it really isn’t but, according to eBird, there are more migrants in Costa Rica right now than I expected. No, not a lot, and we would see more in February or March, but there are more chances at various bird species than I had hoped.
On a plus note, we have a better chance at shorebirds, and more birds will be singing. This will also be a slightly more comfortable Big Day because, no, we will not be listening for birds in dark places at the stroke of midnight. Nope, no exploration of Medio Queso in the middle of the night. Instead, we will start the night-birding at 3 am and be in one of the best forested sites in the country in the pre-dawn hours. My hope is that the dawn chorus will give us several rare forest birds that we would not have gotten otherwise. Since we will be staying at a biological station, we will also have the luxury of a Big Day, sit down breakfast! Well, in all honesty, we will probably be standing up and scanning the canopy while wolfing down the morning vittles but they will be fresh and hot!
Then, it’s off and up the road to San Ramon with brief stops to scan the sky and canopy for raptors, swifts, swallows, and treetop birds, check a small marsh and other small wetlands, and make another stop in cloud forest. We hope that the birds in moist forest near San Ramon will jump up and sing, that the highway down to Chomes is open (along with a flyby Fiery-billed Aracari and singing Scaly-breasted Wren porfavor), and then it’s off to Chomes for a whole new set of birds. Will we break 300 species? Will we find a Great Jacamar? Will it be another test of Zen? Find out next week!
In Costa Rica, the dry season is over and so is the high season. We still see quite a few people visiting Costa Rica for a vacation but not nearly as many as the winter months. The cold, stark reasons for choosing February over May or June for a trip to Costa Rica are as obvious as a Scarlet Macaw but there are still plenty of things to do on a Costa Rican trip during the coming months. Here are some of the birding ideas:
- Watch swifts: No, not Taylor, I mean those fast-flying aerialists that challenge our reaction times. Their fast schemes also make them a royal pain for identification, especially when they fly at speck height. During the wet season, they forage at storm fronts and much closer to home. It’s the best time to get good looks at swifts and come to grips with those challenging birds. Just a few days ago, I had Black and Chestnut-collared along with more regular White-collared and Vaux’s zipping over the house.
- Test out the umbrella: Yes, it does rain at this time of year but without the water, we wouldn’t have such high levels of biodiversity. In general, it’s also sunny in the morning and raining in the afternoon and that’s not so bad for birding. Actually, cloudier weather results in more bird activity in any case.
- Enjoy resident species: Unlike the winter months, you don’t have to worry about glassing yet another Chestnut-sided Warbler when you want to see an antwren. There’s nothing wrong with looking at Chestnut-sidedes but that’s not usually why a birder goes to Costa Rica.
- Study bird vocalizations: More species tend to vocalize, at least during May and June. It’s always better to hear more bird song and that makes it easier to find more bird species.Pocosol dawn3
- Pay less for accommodation: You probably won’t get a huge discount, but yes, most lodging costs less during the green season.
- Enjoy places with fewer tourists: I have never felt like this was an issue but if you want to see less people in national parks, come on down from May to November.
- Explore less visited sites: Sure, this can be done any time of the year but it’s always a good excuse to collect eBird data for little known sites. If inclined, try birding around Barbilla National Park, Hitoy Cerere, Yorkin, Las Tablas, Crucitas, Rincon de la Vieja, Barra Colorado, and sea-watching from Cabo Blanco and south of Golfito.
- Get lots of lifers: You still have pretty much the same chances at resident species as during the high, dry season, and it might even be easier to see several species.
- Participate in the Global Big Day on May 9th: The Cornell Lab- based Sapsucker Team is doing a Big Day in Panama and are encouraging birders of all nations to get out there and do the same, or at least watch birds and submit the results to eBird. I plan on doing a Big Day with some friends on May 9th as well. Most of the winter birds will be gone but we should still see a lot!
I hope to do all of the above (although I would have to travel outside of Costa Rica to get a lot of lifers). Are you coming to Costa Rica during the low season? Get ready for the trip with my Costa Rica bird finding guide/companion, and the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.
Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend a weekend guiding at Rincon de Osa. The last time I spent more than a day there was in 1999. Back then, there were fewer houses, and I recorded more birds but it’s still pretty much the same place. Rainforest still grows on the hills that form a backdrop to the road, and mangrove forests flank the gulf. We identified around 150 species and it was a good trip. Some other thoughts:
- More places to stay: The last time I stayed in Rincon, I stayed in what appeared to be the only place that offerred accommodation. I can’t recall the name of the place but it was listed in the Lonely Planet and was, basically, someone’s home. Nowadays, there are a few places to choose from, including Cabinas Chontal. This is where we stayed and I highly recommend it. Lodging is in very clean, wooden cabins outfitted with comfortable beds, a fan, and rather spacious bathroom. Meals were included and were very good! Meals were also tasty, imaginative, and more than enough food. I’m not sure how much it costs per night or per person but it was very reasonable. Contact the owners for information.
- Boat trips: If you like, Cabinas Chontal offers boat trips across the gulf. As with other boat trips, this turned out to be not as birdy as hoped but we still got some good stuff and it has potential. Not to mention, the boat driver was also helpful and determined to help us see birds, including a male Yellow-billed Cotinga that we saw displaying in the mangroves. We also saw a White Hawk and a few other species but the boat isn’t the best option for scanning the canopy of the rainforest.
- Good forest, but tough to access: Rainforest occurs along the road but there aren’t any trails that access it. Well, there is a very steep trail but climbing uphill in hot, humid weather makes for tough birding indeed. If there was better access to the forest interior, this would be a good area for Marbled Wood-Quail (we heard them), maybe Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager (I had them in the past), and other species of the forest interior. However, the canopy is visible and could turn up raptors, cotingas, toucans, and other species of the tall trees. While scanning the canopy, although we didn’t connect with cotingas, we saw Double-toothed Kite, toucans, aracaris, Blue Dacnis, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and others.
- Raptors: The place has good potential for raptors because it combines a good area of primary forest with good views of the canopy, and a ridge where raptors soar. Including the White Hawk seen from the boat, we had at least 9 species of raptors right from the Cabinas Chontal. These were Osprey, King Vulture, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Yellow-headed Caracara, Swallow-tailed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Common Black Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. I also had one distant soaring bird that was a very likely Black and white Hawk-Eagle but it was only for an instant, soared behind a ridge, and didn’t come back! Near Rincon, we also had Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kite, and Zone-tailed Hawk with a bonus flyby Ornate Hawk-Eagle on the drive back to the Pan-American highway. Oh, not to mention, Abraham from the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge saw a Harpy Eagle at Rincon in 2004!
- Cotingas: Well, they are still present but they aren’t as common as they used to be. To give an idea of the difference between then and now, in 1999, I saw Yellow-billed and Turquoise Cotingas literally right after getting off the bus. Granted, there was a fruiting fig they were coming to but I also saw more than one of each while scanning the canopy. On this trip, despite a lot of canopy watching, we saw one male Yellow-billed in the mangroves, one at the edge of the mangroves, and one at the bridge. Oh, and no Turquoise. The lack of cotingas was probably related to lack of fruiting trees but I can’t help but wonder if their populations are being affected by consistent, drier conditions. They likely are and this doesn’t bode well for endangered species, especially in THE stronghold for Yellow-billed Cotinga.
- The bridge: This is what most birders know about Rincaon because it’s where they look for Yellow-billed Cotinga. It’s a nice spot to wait because you also see some waterbirds on the river, and a good assortment of rainforest species near the bridge. While birding at the bridge and along the road towards Drake Bay, our highlights were a very cooperative White-necked Puffbird, a pair of Red-rumped Woodpeckers, Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon (and the other three species that occur), Plain Xenops, and Black-hooded Antshrike.
- Birding along the road at Rincon: Fortunately, there was enough room on the side of the road to avoid occasional traffic and see a good variety of birds. The combination of forest edge, second growth, and a few scrubby, wet areas resulted in great looks at Pale-breasted Spinetail, Riverside Wren, a couple of migrant Eastern Kingbirds, tons of migrant Swainson’s Thrushes, and other species. Overall, it was nice, easy birding.
- Hummingbirds: No luck with the coquette although I have seen it there in the past. We still did alright, though, with 11 or 12 species including good looks at Bonzy Hermit, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Long-billed Starthroat, Purple-crowned Fairy, White-necked Jacobin, and lots of Charming Hummingbirds (more common than Rufous-tailed!). We also saw a couple of Mangrove Hummingbirds in the mangroves right behind the cabins. This endangered endemic was a bit hard to find but we eventually got good looks at a male and female.
- Good base for exploring the road to Drake Bay: You need four wheel drive, and various parts of the road are deforested or planted with the damn modern day agricultural scourge known as the African Oil Palm but this road has some serious potential. During brief exploration of this road (we might have also gone on some side road, I’m not sure), although we passed through too many areas of pasture, there were many, good views of forested hillsides, and we eventually passed through excellent forest at what seemed to be the top of the road. That area in particular looked good for White-tipped Sicklebill, and seemed like a good area to check for Red-throated Caracara, and other rare raptors. I would love to be there at dawn and spend the whole day in that area, scanning the hillsides for canopy species. This area of the road was about 30 minutes or so by car from Rincon.
- Rice fields: If you feel like seeing Red-breasted Blackbird and other, open country species, follow the road towards Drake Bay and take the first left. This crosses a small bridge and eventually loops back around to the highway to Puerto Jimenez (follow the orange arrows painted on trees). You eventually reach a rice field with the blackbirds. Hopefully, this field will continue to be planted with rice and not be drained and monocultured with oil palms as has recently happened to other rice fields in that area.
- Mirador de Rincon: While walking the road at Rincon, we noticed a sign and side road to this place. Although we didn’t walk all the way to the overlook, we did find some alright birding in old second growth on the side road. I bet it’s pretty birdy in the morning.
If you feel like spending more time in Rincon than a cotinga vigil at the bridge, the area does have potential. The birding is good, Cabinas Chontal is nice and worth it (if rather basic), and that road to Drake Bay beckons.
When we take birding trips, there are two main books that us birders buy. We all know that those two essentials are (1) a field guide, and (2) a bird-finding book. While some of us forego the bird finding books because we are on a tour or want to save on packing space, most of us usually buy one before the trip. A good bird-finding guide helps with planning, lets us know what to expect, where to go, and ups the excitement level for the trip.
Costa Rica has had its fair share of bird finding guides, including a good one that came out less than ten years ago. However, most bird-finding guides are limited to a certain amount of space because it just isn’t cost-effective to publish a bird-finding tome rather than a heavily edited book with fewer pages. This leaves out many a lesser known yet valuable site as well as a cornucopia of other useful information for planning a birding trip. One solution to the extra pages/publishing conundrum is the E-book; the platform I chose for ”How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.
More a Costa Rican birding companion than a site guide, this book has been many years in the making. I toyed with the idea of writing something that would present information on finding as well as identifying birds in Costa Rica ever since my second trip there in 1994. As I birded my way around several parts of Costa Rica, such questions came to mind as: If antbirds were supposed to be common, where were they? How do you find motmots, puffbirds, tinamous, and other neotropical birds? Where were all of the raptors? And what about identification of woodcreepers?
This book aims to answers these and many other questions about birding in Costa Rica to help birders of all levels prepare for trips to this country as well as other areas in the neotropical region. It’s also a site guide and although I haven’t included every site in the country, this book is, by far, the most comprehensive birding site guide for Costa Rica. I had hoped to make it available by the end of 2014 but, as it turns out, it just took much longer than expected. However, I am happy to say that this first edition is finally done and available for use on PCs, tablets, and smartphones (once an Adobe Reader app. is downloaded onto the device). Buy this e-book for $24.99 if you would like to see and identify more birds in Costa Rica, and if you would like to support this blog.
A few screen shots from the book:
Information from the second section of the book:
Tips for Identification:
To order this e-book,
please contact Pat O’Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are more places to bird in Costa Rica than Carara, Savegre, Monteverde, Rancho Naturalista, and La Selva. All of those sites are classic, great, and worth visiting but there are plenty of other places that await exploration. One of those little visited places is Mirador Prendas. Located at 200 meters elevation on the Caribbean slope near Horquetas, this site is a local tourism destination that features a tower-like structure, restaurant, some sort of accommodation, zip-lining, and other adventurous activities.
I first learned about the place when David Segura of the Tico Birder blog wrote about it. Since he saw White-fronted Nunbird, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and other nice birds, I have wanted to check the place out for some time. This past weekend, while perusing the Sarapiqui area for migrants, Susan Blank and I decided to do a detour to the Mirador Prendas area. We didn’t get there until post-dawn chorus so it wasn’t the most accurate of scouting bird surveys, BUT, we did get a taste of the area. Here is some delicious information along with some known and expected bird highlights:
- Access is a bit of a challenge: If you go by vehicle, you will need one with four wheel drive; high clearance would also be good. Most of the road is alright but there are a few places where a small car would be stopped. Hiking or mountain biking would also work. During wet weather, the road past the place is probably inaccessible because of slippery clay that sticks to tires and tries to glide you right off the road.
- Habitat: There is birdy second growth on parts of the road along with pastures and two rivers at the start of the road. Those rivers can be good for Fasciated Tiger-Heron and Sunbittern (we saw the heron). Closer to Prendas, there is nice rainforest near the road. The best habitat may be past Prendas, and since it’s connected to the forests of Braulio Carrillo, the area has a lot of potential.
- Lowland species, some foothill birds possible: The habitats probably support most lowland species, and there could be foothill birds a bit further up the road. We had a fair variety of species despite spending just one morning in the area and missing the dawn chorus.
- Trails: I’m not entirely sure but I think that Prendas has trails into the forest. I hope so because they could be good for antbirds, Olive-backed Quail-Dove, and who knows what else.
- Green Ibis: We heard one near the rivers.
- Crested Guan: Always a good sign.
- King Vulture: Another good sign.
- Hawk-eagles: We didn’t have any but I would expect all three in the area.
- Tiny Hawk: We didn’t have this one either but it looks like a good area for this little raptor.
- Night birds: Nope, we weren’t there at night but others have had Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Spectacled owl, Black and white Owl, and Great Potoo. All of the other lowland night birds should also be present.
- Black-throated Trogon: Not an uncommon bird but always nice to see this one. We also had Gartered, and Slaty-tailed should be there too.
- Bat Falcon: Saw a pair of those.
- Brown-hooded Parrot: Nice looks at this one. We also had good looks at Mealy Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, and White-crowned Parrot.
- Antbirds: Despite a sunny, late morning, we heard Chestnut-backed and Spotted Antbirds, and saw Checker-throated Antwren, and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Other ant-following birds should also be around.
- Black-striped Woodcreeper: A nice lowland bird to see. We also had Northern Barred, Wedge-billed, Cocoa, and Streak-headed.
- White-ringed Flycatcher: It was nice to see some of these lowland canopy specialists.
- Red-capped Manakin: A sign of good forest.
- Shining Honeycreeper and Blue Dacnis: Expected but always nice to see. Although we didn’t connect with any mixed flocks, I bet some good ones occur around there.
- Cowbirds: Not really exciting but interesting to find several Bronze, three Giants, and ten or so Shiny Cowbirds at a cattle trough. How are they affecting resident species? Especially the invasive Shiny? Actually, Bronzed should also be looked at as an invasive since it wouldn’t have occured when there was heavy forest and no cows.
To sum things up, the rough roads make birding a bit adventurous but time and effort should yield several quality species, especially further up the road.
Some birds are common, some are tough to see, and others are downright rare as mangos in the arctic. As if a tropical fruit next to a Gyrfalcon wasn’t improbable enough for you, we also have these bird species that are enigmas. These are situations like the 21st century Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Pink-headed Duck sightings, and in Costa Rica, the Alfaro’s Hummingbird. If you want to look for Alfaro’s Hummingbird, scour the high elevations of Miravalles Volcano but don’t get your hopes up. Only one specimen was ever collected, and subsequent searches came up zilch.
I don’t want to discourage searches for the Alfaro’s by any means because after all, who knows? Not to mention, you will probably see some cool birds anyways and have close encounters with other tropical biodiversity. However, if you really want to solve a bird enigma in Costa Rica, give a shot at finding the Wing-banded Antbird.
We know that this bird does indeed exist and it’s not even endangered. BUT, what we don’t know is if or where it occurs in Costa Rica. In Stiles and Skutch, the Wing-banded was mentioned as a possibility based on one possible sighting in the forests of the Fila Carbon in southeastern Costa Rica. No sightings have been substantiated since then BUT…it…just…might..occur (if William Shatner was a birder, that’s how he would say it…).
Seriously though, I believe that this funny cross between an antthrush and an antwren probably does occur in Costa Rica. Or, at least it did, if it hasn’t recently been extirpated from the country. It couldn’t have been widespread because if that were the case, the antbird would have turned up in a mist net somewhere. So, it sure ain’t or never was common but why insist that it’s a possibility anyways?
I wish I could say that I have seen or heard one but nope, that wouldn’t be honest. However, I did speak with someone who insists that he did see one and not just once but twice. He was a guide who worked at Rara Avis for many years and therefore knew the birds in that area quite well. I found his story to be very credible because after all, he wasn’t exactly bragging about it. Basically, he said that when he saw the bird, he didn’t know what it was it because it didn’t look like any of the birds in the book nor like any he had seen around Rara Avis during literally years of birding. He said that the only bird it matched was the picture of the Wing-banded in Stiles and Skutch. Not only that, but his description of its behavior also matched that for our enigmatic target species. He also showed me exactly where he had seen it. Despite always looking for it, though, he never saw it again after a brief second sighting.
No picture, so no inclusion in the guide but if one considers that his sighting came from a nearly inaccessible area of dense foothill forest around 600 meters elevation, that could partly explain why it hasn’t been found again or at other sites. Interestingly enough, that elevation is somewhat similar to the elevation where Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann found Wing-banded Antbird at Cerro Musun, Nicaragua. What? It lives in Nicaragua and Panama but not Costa Rica? Yes, but as strange as that may seem at first glance, “leap-frog” distribution patterns occur for a number of taxa in tropical forests (probably explained by evolutionary history and tropical forest ecosystems being more heterogenous than we think). BUT, maybe it does (or did) live in Costa Rica albeit in the following situations:
- Low density populations: This is the case for most tropical forest species and maybe even more so for the Wing-banded Antbird. After all, it doesn’t appear to be common in most parts of its range.
- Large areas of lowland and foothill rainforest: No, it was never recorded at La Selva but maybe it never lived there either. Maybe it lived in the hilly rainforests of the San Carlos lowlands, now mostly deforested and never adequately surveyed before the trees were cut down. But what about foothill sites like the Arenal area and Braulio Carrillo? Maybe it never occured there either or perhaps it just lived in spots with the right microhabitat.
- Microhabitat: Speaking of microhabitats, Josh and Kathi noted something else about their sighting- the bird was found in an area of old growth forest with an open understory. I have heard others say the same thing about sightings of this species in Panama and the Guianas so maybe that is the key to finding them. If you don’t find this particular microhabitat within a large area of primary forest, then maybe you are looking in the wrong place.
But back to why it might live in Costa Rica. The possible sightings from Rara Avis/El Plastico aside, there are definite records for this species from Refugio Bartola, Niacaragua. This amazing gem of a site is literally across the river from Costa Rica. Sure, rivers can act as barriers for species like the Wing-banded Antbird BUT when one takes into account that very few surveys have taken place in Costa Rica just across the San Juan river, and that this area (Crucitas) and nearby is rarely if ever visited by birders, it sounds like a worthwhile place to search.
So, based on the information here is where to look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica:
- Hilly forests in the Las Crucitas area: This includes the forests just east of Las Crucitas and indeed, I think that area is the place where the bird occurs because based on Google Earth, there seem to be intact rainforests at elevations up to 200 and 300 meters in elevation. I’m not sure if hilly areas play a factor but they might if such topography results in well-drained forest.
- Forests in the Maquenque and Laguna del Lagarto area: If the hilly forest west of Maquenque can be accessed, this seems like a good place to look. The same goes for rainforests near Laguna del Lagarto. It wouldn’t hurt to look near those lodges as well but since they have been well birded, the presence of the species at those sites doesn’t seem likely.
- El Plastico and Ecolodge Yatama: El Plastico is on the way to Rara Avis and one of the spots where a possible sighting occured. Ecolodge Yatama is near there and situated in a large area of good forest. Elevations are around 400 to 600 meters.
- Fila Carbon and the base of the Talamancas: Since a possible sighting occured there, why not check again? Also, given the amount of habitat and few surveys carried out in forests along the base of the Talamancas, it’s worth checking there as well. Sites to check would be Yorkin, Hitoy Cerere, and Barbilla National Park. Since there are no sightings from adjacent Panama, this might not be the best region to look but since we are talking about a very secretive, very difficult species no matter where it lives, you never know!
- Well drained, primary forest with a fairly open understory: Since this situation matches places where it is seen most often, this could be the microhabitat that this species needs.
Why look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica when you can see it in Panama and northern South America? Well, not only would you possibly document this species for the country, you would also certainly see a lot of other rare species in the process. Bird those remote rainforests near Maquenque and Crucitas and I think you have a chance at both huge eagles, Red-throated Caracara, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, and everything else. The main challenge is accessing the sites mentioned and carrying out intensive surveys for at least a week. If you can manage that in the forests east of Crucitas, I bet you will find it.
Expecting the unexpected is par for the binocular course when birding in tropical rainforest. The surprise effect can be a challenge for target-based birding but makes every trip into the forest like that box of chocolate quote from Forrest Gump. Basically, while you can have an idea of what you might see, you never really never know what you are going to get.
Quebrada Gonzalez is like that and is probably why it’s one of my favorite places to bird. It doesn’t matter how many times I have walked past those old, mossy trees on the trail, I really never know what is going to happen. However, every time I step into that dense forest, I am fully aware of rare possibilities at every turn of the trail.
On saturday, I birded the area with friends Susan Blank and Dani Lopez-Velasco, and as expected, we heard more than we saw and had some quiet times in beautiful forest, but also had a couple of mixed flocks, and a few really good birds. We went there because it’s the most accessible site as a day trip for a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Sharpbill, Gray-headed Piprites, and other Megas in Costa Rica. Although I hardly ever see those at the site, the more you go, the better chance you have at finally connecting with them so there’s never anything wrong with a day of birding at Quebrada.
As we quietly walked through the rainforest, the calls of Carmiol’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers were a near constant companion. Some other birds were with them now and then but nothing incredible. No matter, they were still fun to watch as was White-ruffed Manakin, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Rufous Mourner. One of our best of the day was Black-crowned Antpitta. Always a Mega, Quebrada Gonzalez is one of the very few easily accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica (and in the world for that subspecies- maybe a future split?). Unfortunately, it’s not as regular at Quebrada as it used to be but still haunts the forest, especially near streams and gullies.
Like the previous week, we heard the bird sing quietly now and then and after a prolonged wait, the male antpitta (gnatpitta) finally hopped out onto the trail for nearly a minute. It was long enough for great looks but still not long enough to get a picture of it in the dim understory. We also had a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles near there.
Despite plenty of staring and listening in the understory, and hearing Dull-mantled, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, we didn’t hit any ground-cuckoo lotteries but we still had a chance on the Ceiba trail. At first, it was dreadfully quiet but some birds eventually started to show on the Botarrama Trail while we searched for Lanceolated Monklet. These were birds like Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Stripe-breasted Wren.
After giving up on the monklet, we made our back up the trail and ran into a good mixed flock. As tanagers slowly made they way across the trail and other birds showed, movement in a tree off to the right materialized into one of our best for the day; Yellow-eared Toucanet! A male was feeding in a fruiting tree and then called high above before retreating back into the forest. Pale-vented thrushes and Black-mandibled Toucans were also feeding at the tree but we couldn’t wait around long enough to see if a Lovely Cotinga would make an appearance.
The male was a year bird for me and Susan and a major target for Dani because it was one of the only lifers that he could get in Costa Rica. Hopefully, he will pick up the ground-cuckoo for himself and his clients during his Birdquest tour (last year, they got an astounding 590 plus species!).
As always, I can’t wait to get back to Quebrada to hang out in the forest and see what happens. Maybe I will get a picture of a Sharpbill, have Black-eared Wood-Quail quietly creep through the forest, or find a Black and white Hawk-Eagle. All are possible, but you won’t see them if you don’t put in the time and effort.
A lot of factors come into play for a Big Day and one of the biggest is precipitation. If it’s a little bit of rain, that’s probably alright and might work in your favor in keeping the birds calling all day long. The same goes for showers. What you don’t want is a fat morning thunderstorm or constant, cold front rain because that really knocks out too many bird species to bother with a Big Day attempt.
Last Sunday, we had our Big Day attempt…and a cold front moved in to shut us down before dawn (ouch). As the clock hit seven, we still maintained hope that the rain would break long enough for enough birds to sing, or that it would be raining less in another morning birding spot, but neither of those plans worked out. So, instead of sticking to the schedule, we realized that it would be more fun to just hit a few spots for the rest of the day and not race down to Chomes to snatch looks at shorebirds in the mosquito loving dusk.
Robert, Susan, and I still saw some nice birds including a few rare ones. The following are some of the highs and lows of scouting on Saturday and birding on Sunday:
- Green-winged Teal: A male had been reported from a site near our route. Saturday scouting showed that it was definitely close enough to fit in and also gave us chances at Killdeer (uncommon), Blue-winged Teal, and another wetland bird or two. It was nice to see the teal because this is a very rare species for Costa Rica and was new for my country list. We made this our final stop on Sunday and saw the teal straight away along with the Blue-wings, Southern Lapwing, Tropical Mockingbird, and a few other species.
- Scouting around San Ramon: Brief but cool to find a couple of birding spots, one of which may have given us Rufous-breasted and Rufous and white Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and other dry forest species.
- Least Bittern: Another new one for my country list! Although we didn’t see it, we heard one bird that called once at Medio Queso. That was in the middle of the night but despite good weather, not as many birds were calling as I had hoped. That said, we did pick up Mottled Owl, Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, and Boat-billed Heron.
- Great Potoo: After looking and listening for a reliable one at the San Emiliano bridge near Cano Negro, we were just about to give up when I noticed the monster sitting on a low post under a street light. We couldn’t ask for better views and one of the highlights of the weekend! After that, as we tried for Ocellated Poorwill and Common Potoo, the rain turned on.
- Cano Negro to Upala: This turned out to be a low during our supposed 24 hours of concentrated birding madness. It was raining in earnest, the rocky road loosened a bracket underneath the vehicle, there were no birds to be seen, and it was slow going in the middle of nowhere. We were pretty happy to see pavement even with all that falling water.
- Eastern Whip-poor-Will: A nice surprise! This is a tough/rare bird in Costa Rica and another welcome first for my country list. We saw it between the turn off for Castillo and the entrance to the Observatory Lodge along with dozens of pauraques en route. When I saw it, I knew there was something different about it and sure enough, it wasn’t a pauraque. As we drove up, it seemed to have a shorter tail and lacked white in the wings. A look through rain and bins showed enough to make us realize what it was. It also makes me wonder how many Whip-poor-wills and Chucks are out there in the dark night and overlooked? They rarely vocalize in-country so you just wouldn’t know if they were around. Speaking of chucks, Juan Diego Vargas mentioned several on the peninsula road at Arenal. Speaking of Juan Diego, he gets a huge thanks for filling us in on lots of gen before the Big Day.
- The Arenal feeders: It was raining and the dawn chorus was minimal but at least we saw some birds; nice ones like Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, several hummingbirds, and Hepatic Tanager.
- Yellow-breasted Chat!: Despite looking for and not seeing on Saturday, the chat that I had seen with the guys from 10,000 Birds in December, we managed to turn it up in a different, tiny corner of vegetation in the same area on Sunday! Yay, especially because this was a new country bird for Robert and Susan.
- Some birds around Penas Blancas: We left Arenal in search of clear weather and did find some at the Penas Blancas river. Birds were active and we picked up a fair number of expected species including Long-tailed Tyrant. Not enough stuff to make up for the lost morning but it was worth a try.
- LoveEats Cafe: Always a highlight and always good! We decided to stop there and enjoy capuccinos after accepting that the day was a literal wash. Unfortunately, weather there was way too windy and dry. We saw a Swallow-tailed Kite but little else. It was the same way too dry weather at the Manuel Brenes road. If these sites continue with such dry weather, I don’t see how there won’t be full ecosystem collapse in an area that typically hosts hundreds of bird species.
- San Luis Canopy: The nice people at this excellent zip-lining site and restaurant let us check out their feeders and trail through cloud forest. It was a nice walk and we saw several expected middle elevation species despite the sunny weather. No Sunbittern on the river but it does occur. I hope to visit soon to survey the place with a resident birder/guide and will post about it.
- Good company: As always, no matter where we go, birding with Robert and Susan’s is always a good day.
The obvious solution to being rained out on a Big Day is rescheduling but so far, we haven’t found a date to do it because we need free time and a late afternoon high tide to coincide. If that happens, we might still make it happen and I do think we would have a chance at a record. Of course, the weather would still have to cooperate too!
It’s March and this being the high season for birding in Costa Rica, I thought that some birding news, tips, and reminders would be pertinent:
- The main road to Cerro de la Muerte is now open: Yes, it was closed for most of February because part of the road fell away. Yep, it collapsed after heavy rains but according to the news, they have fixed enough of it to not have to detour through the mountains south of San Jose.
- Good birds in southern Costa Rica: According to eBird (a fantastic resource, please help by contributing your sightings), Savannah Hawk, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, and Brown-throated Parakeet have all been seen near La Gamba and in wetlands south of Ciudad Neily.
- Carara is kind of dry: It’s been way too dry around Carara and that’s not so good for birds that are adapted to humid forest. All of the species are still there but you might have to work harder for them than in the past. The park still opens at 7 at this time of year.
- Lanceolated Monklet at the La Fortuna Waterfall: A number of local birders have connected with this rare species at the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Perhaps it’s more vocal at this time of year? Despite the parade of tourists and loud leaf blowing in the parking lot before it opens, the trail can also be good for White-whiskered Puffbird, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, tanager flocks, and other species.
- Prevost’s (Cabanis’) Ground-Sparrow: It was wonderful to see an article on this endemic ain the local newspaper. This species requires a lot more attention than it has been given and is very likely Endangered. Local ornithologist, Luis Sandoval, and other researchers at the Univeristy of Windsor Mennill Lab have published a study arguing for species status and propose White-faced Ground Sparrow as a new name for this country endemic. It’s a relief to see this much needed study, I hope it spurs much needed conservation efforts for this species. Thank you Luis and the Mennill Lab! On another note, the ground-sparrow has also been reliable in a riparian zone next to the big WalMart near the airport to Alajuela. BUT, the security situation looks a bit sketchy so if possible, it would be best to watch from inside the fenced off parking lot. I haven’t heard of any incidents but it looks like a spot where a mugging could happen.
- There are at least two birding boat tours on the Tarcoles River: There are two and I have heard that some of the crocodile tours are also good for birds. The two birding focused ones are the Mangrove Birding Tour, and the Fantastic Birding Tour. Although I haven’t checked out the “fantastic”, I suspect it’s similar because they both go to the same places. Lately, tours on the river have been good for the thick-knee, Collared Plover, and Southern Lapwing. The pygmy-kingfisher can also show on any boat trip, as can Mangrove Hummingbird (beware confusion with Scaly-breasted). The wood-rail can appear too but it’s always tough.
- Raptors, Quetzals, and Cave Swallows: Raptors are scarce as always but the Arenal forests seem good for hawk-eagles, quetzals are nesting at the usual sites and I have seen several on the road to Poas Volcano, including right at the Restaurant Volacan. As for Cave Swallows, myself and a couple friends saw at least 20 along the road to Chomes. New country bird for me, it makes you wonder where they are coming from and how many more are around.
- Migrants: We are starting to see reports of migrants coming through. Please report whatever you see on eBird even if it happens to be a common bird like Least Flycatcher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, or Warbling Vireo because those “common” birds are rare vagrants in Costa Rica.
- Big Day this weekend: Not really news, but I am doing one this weekend with Robert and Susan. It’s going to be good birding no matter how many species we get. Wish us luck!