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biodiversity climate change migration

Blackburnian Warblers in Costa Rica- Will They Always be Here?

Fall passerine migration has reached Costa Rica. Unlike the woods and fields of Niagara, it doesn’t happen in waves of birds that shake the pollen from the Goldenrod. The subtle movements and gentle colors of warblers, vireos, and Least Flycatchers in early autumn foliage aren’t a part of our fall landscape but that’s alright; every place has its avian charm. In Costa Rica, our fall migration charms start with flocks of Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, group after group of Eastern Kingbird, an abundance of Red-eyed Vireos and wood-pewees. As in the north, the ancient annual movement of birds also happens in Costa Rica, it just takes on different flavors and shades of bird.

An Eastern Kingbird migrating through Costa Rica.

Other birds that paint a Central American autumn are thousands (likely millions) of Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows, Purple Martins, and many Scarlet Tanagers. Although we don’t see the full array of classic, confusing fall warblers, a fair number still move into and through Costa Rica. You see, our fall migration is a combination of birds coming back to their winter homes and others heading further south, straight to the bird continent that begins with Colombia. The Blackburnian Warbler is one of those passage migrants and these days, it can be the most common warbler in town.

The other day, we had our first fall taste of Blackburnians while visiting some friends for some morning birding in higher habitats. Although our birding destination was still heavily influenced by an urban component, there were enough gardens and green space to connect us with a healthy number of birds. For folks from North America, this will surely sound odd but the best bird on our morning list was actually a Tree Swallow. A species that doesn’t need to travel this far south, we don’t get too many in Costa Rica and most sightings take place in later months. Nevertheless, we were surprised and pleased to be looking at a juvenile Tree Swallow flying around with a feeding swarm of resident Blue-and-white Swallows.

Blue-and-white Swallow

The rest of the morning gave us more typical migrant species; a Western Wood-Pewee that sallied from a garden post, a couple of Wilson’s Warblers at higher elevations, and our first Black-and-white Warbler of the fall. More groups of swallows also moved through, mostly in the form of Cliff and I do enjoy watching those but our main quarry, our most hoped for birds were wood-warblers. This being the height of Cerulean Warbler migration in Costa Rica, I have to admit that this special beauty was the number one bird on my mind. We weren’t looking in the best of places but at this time of transience, it can happen anywhere, even in the riparian zone out back.

We might not have seen a Cerulean on that day but checking each and any warbler still rewarded us with numerous looks at another favorite beauty, the Blackburnian.

We must have seen at least 8 of this popular species on that morning, maybe more, and on subsequent days, I saw some while walking near home. Unlike the male warblers of May, the birds that boast their presence with bright colors and song, these Blackburnians were in fall stealth migration mode. They didn’t chip, they didn’t respond to pishing or pygmy-owl or screech-owl calls. They were too busy feeding for any of that nonsense, too intent on bulking up to head back into the night skies and move to their Andean wintering grounds.

Given their quiet focused ways, the warblers almost went unnoticed, even as they steadily moved through the foliage, hopping here, picking something off a leaf there. Given that effective unobtrusive behavior, I wonder how many more were out there in Costa Rica? Hundreds? Probably thousands, all spread across green space, feeding to fill up and keep moving.

Blackburnian Warbler in stealth mode.

The tropical foliage where they forage and spend the winter is a far cry from their breeding grounds. It’s hard to imagine both types of forest in the same frame of thought but the connection is made with Blackburnian Warblers and other birds. They form a bridge between fantastic humid biodense forests of the Andes with fantastic mixed forests of the north. Those breeding grounds are forests of Maple, Oak, and Spruce, places where I have been serenaded to near sleep by the steady toots of Northern Saw-whet Owl, places where one awakes to the ethereal song of Wood Thrushes, places where I made my first birding steps.

Hemlock and pine and June in such places is an incredible show of birdsong. At least it should be. It still is in many places but given the massive decline in birds, I am sure it’s not as loud as it warrants. Nor are the trees as massive and tall as they should be even though much forest has grown back.

Naturally speaking, it’s extremely important to know how things should naturally be because how else can we know if an ecosystem is working as it should? How else can we know if the vegetation is growing as it should to provide people hundreds of years from now with carbon sequestration, food, and other essential benefits? How else can we know if there are enough Blackburnian and other warblers to act as natural pest killers? How else can we know if we are working with our natural surroundings and not breaking down the essential connections, wiping away a safety net that would keep us thriving for the long run?

The Blackburnians that are moving through Costa Rica didn’t have to deal with the conflagrations out west. The Olive-sided Flycatchers and Western Wood-Pewees I saw today are the lucky ones, they made it here in time. The other countless number of birds that died in those flames and that may have been erased by the subsequent smoke weren’t so lucky. Terribly, many people also lost their lives, countless more people survived but lost their homes along with everything inside.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee

Having gone through the devastation of a home fire (and not even one where the house was destroyed), I can’t begin to tell you how terrible that is but if you can imagine one moment to the next being homeless and having nothing, and maybe also losing a loved one or family pet, that gives a fair idea. If there’s any way anyone can help, check out these possibilities, these people need it now.

On the bird side of things, the fires make me wonder if there will be fewer Wilson’s Warblers in Costa Rica this winter. The fires may have been partly responsible for the large number of bird deaths from New Mexico. For the Wilson’s that winter in Costa Rica, it all depends on where they are coming from but if we as a species can’t make major changes in time, eventually, it won’t much matter where that species, Blackburnians or many other birds live. Whether they survive drastic changes brought on by human-caused climate change or not will be one more sick gamble of the Anthropocene.

We can put the odds in their favor and keep seeing Blackburnian Warbler in Costa Rica, on the Texas Coast, and Magee Marsh but only if we make major changes now in our collective behavior. We CAN make changes to limit the fires and other major disasters that have the ability to eventually disrupt food production and other basic aspects of life to the point of causing suffering for huge numbers of people. Let’s make the change, the time to do it has already been now.

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biodiversity migration

Wood-Pewee Connection

It’s early September and the first fall migrants are coming through Costa Rica. These are the species that passed through the lands near their northern breeding grounds during the dog days of August; the hot days of shorebird migration, the time of latent summer that tricks you into never believing in winter. In Niagara, those humid days made it hard to imagine the constant freezing winds of a lake watch, the nights ruled by nature’s lethal cold caress. While walking on the hazy beaches of Lake Erie, it was odd to imagine that, just a few months later, those same warm sandy places would be glazed with ice. But the presence of Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers wasn’t any hoax, those Arctic nesters weren’t flying way south for nothing.

In September, those and many other shorebirds have converged in Costa Rica. These are the days to watch them (!), to look for the odd one out, see if you can trick yourself into changing a funny looking distant Semipalmated Plover into a mega Common Ringed. Being far south of cold weather, smartly situated in vital wintering grounds for multitudes of Passerines, Costa Rica also bears witness to numbers of warblers, Baltimore Orioles and other migrant birds of the north. Although the bulk of those travelers won’t be in Costa Rica until October, some of the earlier migrants come through town just about now.

Among those “early” species are birds that winter in South America, birds like Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, and Mississippi Kites. A kite in the Central Valley would be a bonus and it’s not out of the question but seeing one will likely require a visit to the Caribbean lowlands. That’s also where most of the vireos and kingbirds travel but some also find their way to our “backyard”.

This morning, while enjoying coffee and looking for avian action out back, I saw that two vireos had managed to do just that. They were so stealthy, I almost didn’t see them. Unlike the constantly singing bird of the breeding grounds, the fall vireos of Costa Rica have removed themselves from center stage. More concerned with eating, the only sign of their presence is a brief flutter in leafy vegetation, an afterthought of a bird that seems to vanish as soon as you raise the binos. There were just two or were there more? Taking their stealthy behavior into account, there could have easily been several in the area, more birds ghosting their way through the riparian zones out back.

As with every migrant bird, I always wonder where they came from? How far did they fly the night before? Where did those small olive, gray, and white birds spend the summer? Was it in the beautiful mixed forests of the Upper Peninsula where I once camped and listened to Saw-whets on a cold night? Had they been singing in the rolling forests of southern Illinois where I worked for a field season doing bird surveys and looking for bird nests? Could they have even come from the remnant old growth forests of the Niagara Gorge, a special place close to the heart where, like many other Western New Yorkers, I used to hike and fish for salmon?

I wondered the same about another migrant species I had seen out back a few days before. It looked so much like an extension of a snag, I wouldn’t have noticed the bird if it hadn’t moved. Luckily, it was actually moving a lot, sallying out again and again and that bit of brown flash during a light rain is what prompted me to get my binocs. Focusing in on the tip of the stick revealed a wood-pewee and although this migrant Contopus is at the duller end of the colorful bird spectrum, it shines with hues of behavior, challenge, and story.

This particular pewee was showcasing its classic pewee behavior with urgent fervor. It no doubt had better places to be and was buying its night train ticket with captures of airborne insects. Looking at it through the scope revealed a small brown bird constantly looking back and forth and up and down. No time for song, it sallied out again and again, even going after but missing a large white butterfly (oh yes, there are many seriously cool butterflies out back!). Keeping with a pewee tradition that pleases the birder, it came back to that same snag every single time and thus allowed me to study it as much as I wanted.

Those prolonged looks helped me pass the pewee challenge. Scope studies convinced me that the non-vocalizing bird was a Western Wood-Pewee, a species that migrates through the highlands of Costa Rica in large numbers. Although it always is best to hear a pewee before giving it a name, this bird was so gray, had such an overall dark bill, and a more prominent lower wing bar, I figured it had to be a Western.

As for the story of that pewee, I suppose the only thing I honestly know is that it spent a late afternoon in a riparian zone in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. I don’t even know if it found enough food to head back into the night skies and keep flying south but I didn’t see it the following day. As with those vireos and any of the migrant birds from the north, I can’t know where it came from but having heard them on many a bird survey in Colorado and Washington, I have a fair idea of places where it could have spent the summer. Places with Aspens and conifers in unbelievably spectacular scenery, places where I heard many a Flammulated Owl, admired those small owls with a flashlight. Places blanketed with forests of tall Doug Firs, ferns and Devil’s Club in the understory, Varied Thrushes singing from above, Pacific Wrens calling from below. Drier and sunnier habitats too with scattered oaks, junipers and brush frequented by Virginia’s Warblers and Green-tailed Towhees.

That small bird might seem insignificant but it hails from fantastic, beautiful places far to the north, flies through the night over vast areas of Mexico and on to Central America and the story doesn’t even stop there! It keeps going, flying further still to the lush cloud forests of South America, all the way to places with astounding bastions of biodiversity, all the way to the Andes where it shares an avian scene with chat-tyrants, ridiculously plumaged hummingbirds, and a fantastic array of tanagers.

I have also been fortunate to have visited those places where it winters. For now, I’m happy to greet it on its way south but one day, I still hope to fly into the night and meet it again on its wintering grounds.

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Birding News, Costa Rica, September, 2020

It’s September. All of a sudden, here we are starting one of most beautiful months to visit Niagara Falls, the month when the weather is perfect, the salmon are running, and millions of birds are on the move. It seems like we got here so quickly, it also seems like it took forever. So goes the passage of time during the limbo dance of the 20202 pandemic. As always, time doesn’t stop even if our perceptions of it are affected and changed by our circumstances.

Each month has its advantages but for the birding people, September is one of those extra special times. In Costa Rica, it’s a major month of shorebirds and we mark it with annual counts and scoping through congregations of waders at such key sites as Chomes, Punta Morales, and Las Pangas. The first of the migrant passerines are also arriving (including Cerulean Warblers!) but the majority postpone the trip until October. Few if any birders will be visiting Costa Rica this September but you never know, the country is starting to reopen. I hope the following information can be of help:

Storm-Petrels from Puntarenas

Yesterday, September 1st, Marilen and I kicked off the month with a visit to the Pacific Coast. Seeing two Humpback Whales from an overlook just outside of Jaco was fantastic but even more newsworthy was the presence of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels seen from shore at Puntarenas. A small but vital port city, Puntarenas is situated on a spit of land that pokes into the Gulf of Nicoya right where the inner and outer parts of the gulf meet. As a birder might expect, that position and convergence of aquatic systems can attract some interesting things. It’s the type of place that always merits a scan at any time of day and perhaps most of all during the rainy season when an abundance of nutrients are washed into the gulf.

There are storm-petrels out there...

Yesterday’s visit paid off with immediate, close views of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. At first, I figured the small birds flying around the water would be Black Terns but no, every single one was a storm-petrel! The presence of this species in the Gulf of Nicoya is regular but I have rarely seen them from shore and never in such numbers. Typically, with a few ferry rides and maybe 10 visits to Puntarenas over the course of a year, I see one to three Wedge-rumpeds. Yesterday, I counted 28 and I suspect more were present further out. It makes me wonder what else was out there (we did notice some large, tantalizing groups of birds too far away to identify)? Why were so many present? As with some of my other sightings of Black and Least storm-petrels from the point at Puntarenas, many of the birds were foraging where the waters of the inner gulf may converge with those of the outer. Once again, I am reminded of the importance of having some form of bird monitoring and studies for the Gulf of Nicoya to better assess numbers and species that visit the waters of the gulf at which time of year.

Shorebirds

This is high time for shorebird migration in Costa Rica and it’s only going to improve over the next two or three weeks. The most exciting sighting was that of a Ruff (!) seen during the final days of August by Daniel Hernandez in the Las Pangas wetlands near Ciudad Neily. It’s fantastic to have this vagrant once again show in Costa Rica, I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same individual and hope it will stay for the winter.

At Las Pangas, Baird’s Sandpiper has also been seen, more of this species should be present at suitable sites during the next two months. We will be checking a Central Valley site where we had it last year.

Shorebird hotspot Punta Morales has also been good, yesterday, we had large numbers of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willet, and Wilson’s Plovers among 11 other species including Surfbird, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a single Long-billed Curlew.

Cocos Island

Currently, Serge Arias of Costa Rica Birding and some other local birders are on a trip to Cocos Island. I can’t wait to see what they come back with! Will checking the photos turn up some new record for Costa Rica? That always is a possibility.

Nemesis seen

As with any nemesis, it took some time, but I eventually did catch up with the nefarious Masked Duck. We had close views, we saw both sexes, birds vocalized, we saw them doing their skulking thing, and the experience was shared in good company. I am grateful and couldn’t have asked for more! Hopefully, Mary and I will get the chance to visit that area soon and see those birds again.

Updates to Rules for Visiting Costa Rica

The same rules for visiting during the pandemic are still in place but now, folks from certain states in the USA can also visit and more are scheduled to be allowed entrance after September 15th. For more information, see the Costa Rica Tourism Board. One main issue for visiting is getting a pcr COVID-19 test done within 72 hours before travel. Hopefully, this issue will improve, at the moment, I have heard of at least one place in NYC that may do that. Maybe various other places for quick test results are also available?

‘NOTE that if you do get a COVID-19 test, it absolutely has to be a pcr test and not the serological test that checks for antibodies. Recently, two Spanish citizens were denied entrance to Costa Rica because they arrived with results the serological test.

There’s probably more to say about birding in Costa Rica in September but that’s all I can think of for now. Wishing readers the best of birding days, hope to see you sometime soon!

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

Species to See While Birding in Costa Rica: Golden-naped Woodpecker

There are many ways to watch birds. Do we just watch the birds seen through the back window? Maybe not even worry about how they have been named or classified? Do we make plans to learn where certain wood-warblers have been seen and then carry out miniature private expeditions to find them? Maybe some of us venture into the pre-dawn of the marsh to meet the rising of a sun flecked with the silhouettes and calls of whistling-ducks. Some of us might even go much further afield, taking boat trips straight into the open ocean to reach the deep waters, the places where pelagic birds might wander into view. We may also travel to other continents to see birds, take multi-day trips to witness as much of what the avian world can offer.

Birding is birding is birdwatching no matter how you do it but it’s OK to prioritize some species. To be honest, when traveling, it would be a shame not to make efforts to see birds not possible in other places. These are the endemics, the very near endemics, and the species that are just easier to see at one place than another. In Costa Rica, we have several such birds, one of them is a woodpecker.

The Golden-naped Woodpecker is as smartly dressed as its name sounds.

Although this species also lives in western Panama, it is quite nearly restricted to the humid forests of southern Costa Rica. Ranging from Carara National Park to the border, seeing it in Panama seems to typically require a rather difficult trip to the last sizeable patch of lowland rainforest in western Chiriqui.

In Costa Rica, although it is readily seen in many places, it also seems to be more or less restricted to areas of mature rainforest. It can range into second growth but in my experience, for the most part, the Red-crowned Woodpecker takes its place in such edge and open habitats.

Red-crowned Woodpecker,

As with many of the southern Pacific endemics, the Golden-naped Woodpecker seems to be most common in the forests of the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce. It can be seen elsewhere but is certainly most frequent in places with the highest amounts of rainfall and is likely declining because of hotter, drier weather.

Although it takes the place of the Black-cheeked Woodpecker in the rainforests of the Pacific slope, the Golden-naped might even be more closely related to the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker of the Amazon. Or, more likely, it and the closely related Beautiful Woodpecker of Colombia are sort of “bridge” species between the Yellow-tufted and Black-cheeked. No matter what its evolutionary provenance may be, like the Black-cheeked, the Golden-naped Woodpecker does the photographer a favor by visiting fruit feeders as well as foraging in low fruiting trees.

Golden-naped Woodpecker,
Another image of a female Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

Check this bird out on your next visit to Costa Rica, it’s definitely one that you don’t want to miss!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

What’s an Olivaceous Piculet?

I haven’t gone birding lately. Vehicle restrictions a la pandemic have kept me in place and far from the shorebirds of the coast, heavy biodiversity of humid forests, and other sites of rural birdiness. But hey, there’s still birds around here; the Grayish Saltator singing out back, the duet of Barred Antshrikes from the thick vine tangles, other neighborhood birds heard and glimpsed through the windows. Evidence of their presence reminds me that at least a few Yellow-green Vireos are still around and that the first migrant swallows are moving south.

I had a typically handsome Cliff Swallow on Sunday.

While gazing out the back window and wishing for Yellow-billed Cuckoos, I find myself thinking about other birds. The other day, between calls of hidden Cabanis’s Wrens and exclamations of Great Kiskadees, one of the birds that came to mind was the Olivaceous Piculet. It doesn’t live around the Central Valley and I wouldn’t expect it but it’s an interesting bird to ponder, least not, because of its sing-song name.

As with boubous, ioras, foliage-gleaners, and others with unfamiliar, confusing names, unless we already know what a piculet is, we have no idea what an Olivaceous Piculet looks like and might even pass it off as some artsy kitchen utensil. Fortunately, we have the Internet and field guides for Costa Rica to give us answers to all sorts of bird-related questions. In the case of the piculet, a search quickly shows that this is a name for any number of tiny woodpeckers, most of which occur in South America.

In Costa Rica, as with so many birds, thanks to the isthmus joining the North and South of America, one of those piculets lives here and its olivaceous. In normal language, that means that we have a small woodpecker-like bird with some olive in its plumage. Here’s some more information about the one and only piculet of Central America:

Like a Chickadee x Downy Woodpecker

As with other piculet species, the Olivaceous is a funny, miniscule bird that likes to hang off of twigs so it can peck at stems from odd angles. This Cirque du Soleli stuff is par for the course for piculets. Although they can also nearly perch upright, miniature acrobatic manouvers are their real thing.

In Pairs and Mixed Flocks

Olivaceous Piculets can be found on their own or they can join a group of birds. Either way, it’s impressive how adept they are at avoiding detection.

Easy to Overlook

On account of their small dimensions, unobtrusive, focused behavior, and high-pitched vocalizations, piculets can be very easy to overlook. For a while, surely because I didn’t know how to look for it, the Olivaceous was one of my Costa Rica bogey birds, I didn’t see one until my third trip to this birdy nation. I recall how easy it was to overlook another similar bird from Tambopata, Peru; the Fine-barred Piculet. Despite spending several birdy mornings in its river island habitat in the Peruvian Amazon, I didn’t notice that tiny woodpecker until I investigated a series of seriously high-pitched sounds emanating now and then from the dense second growth. That afterthought of a song turned out to be a pair of Fine-barred Piculets, a lifer easily hiding in plain sight. Another piculet species in that area, the Bar-breasted, lived in the canopy of the forest. Suffice to say, despite having spent more than a year birding in Tambopata and seeing everything from Harpy Eagle to Amazonian Parrotlet, I never laid eyes on it.

More Common Than You Think and Spreading

Since the Olivaceous Piculet is naturally evasive, it’s more common than a birder realizes. In fact, I think it’s way more common than we realize. Any time I go birding in edge or garden habitats from the Carara area and the Valle del General on south to Panama, I can usually find one or more pairs of Olivaceous Piculets. If I go birding up north in the Cano Negro area, I also find this species and nowadays, the same thing goes for birding in the Arena area. I have also had piculets at and near Finca Luna Nueva and if they use the same type of edge habitat with scattered trees elsewhere, then there must be thousands of those tiny woodpeckers and in more places than we expect. The key to finding them, to know how many are around, is knowing and listening for their high-pitched song.

It can be hard to pick out from the blend of wren calls, flycatcher sounds, and insect noise but once you do, you might start to hear them all the time.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges

A Day of Birding at Albergue Socorro

Usually I go birding in more places and more often than I have been doing. In the year of the pandemic, for a fair percentage of the global birding community, I am guessing that’s par for the course. Whereas I would normally be birding once a week and guiding trips here and there at least a few times a month, since March, my birding endeavors have been placed on hold. The big pause button was and is pressed down by an assemblage of closures, restrictions, and associated economical effects. The good news is that birds are everywhere, I can still connect with the avian side of nature by way of Blue-and-white Swallows perched just outside the window, and by waking up to the calls of bobwhites, the warbles of Blue Grosbeaks, and various songs of other neighborhood birds.

But there’s so much more out there to see (!), to personally discover. What biological madness is happening in those nearby cloud-covered mountains? Is there a weird and rare Sharpbill accentuating a mixed flock on the other, wetter side of the hills? Can Solitary Eagle still exist in Costa Rica? A good place to check would be the other side of those mountains out the back window, on the wild and Caribbean side of Braulio Carrillo National Park. Does the massive black-hawk persist over there or has it already succumbed to the effects of climate change (a victim of life cascades brought to deadly drought by warmer, drier weather)?

I haven’t had a chance to dedicate time to look for Solitary Eagle, Sharpbills, nor much of anything else but at least I can still make plans for the eventual search. Thanks to a local, resident world birder, recently, I did have a chance to look for some birds. We were after more than Sharpbills and Solitary Eagles and knew that our chances at finding our very rare targets were as slim as a Sharpie’s tarsi but you can’t have homemade-made cake unless you bake it, can’t reach the hidden peak unless you climb it.

With parrotlets, ground-cuckoos, and piprites on the mind, we spent a day and half searching for some bird cake at the Albergue Socorro. Encountering such rare and unreliable species in a short amount of time can’t be expected but the more you try the better your chances and given driving times to destination, the beautiful lower middle elevation rainforests of Socorro seemed like a good place to bring our bins.

In our brief window of birding, we did not find the super rare ones but I can’t say that it was for lack of trying. Following a strategy of covering as much ground as possible to increase chances of encountering an antswarm or hearing our targets, we walked on moist, bio-rich trails through beautiful forest, kept going on a road that bisects an excellent area of forest, and walked a bit more. Although the focus was on a search for rare birds, during those walks, we still saw and heard plenty of other things. Early morning on the Las Lomas trail saw us move beneath massive rainforest trees with crowns obscured by a an abundance of vegetation; the aerial “soil” of the canopy. We were accompanied by the upward, tripping songs of Tropical Parulas above and dry ticking of Golden-crowned Warblers below.

While keeping an eye on the trail for gnomish antpittas, we heard and saw a mouse-like Tawny-throated Leaftosser, had glimpses of candy-beaked Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, stood still and listened to the low frequency calls of a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.

The chips and calls of Silver-throated and other tanagers were a constant and we had close encounters with less brightly-colored Plain Antvireos. Despite having to navigate the clutching branches of two fallen trees, we walked that trail back out to the open rocky road and kept searching. There were Crested Guans honking like mutant geese, Swallow-tailed Kites riding the currents overhead, and Tufted Flycatchers calling and quivering their tails at the side of the road.

The bird with a way too long name (Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant) was also present in fair numbers, we saw a few of them.

Calling White-throated Spadebills managed to stay hidden but a tail-pumping Zeledon’s Antbird was cool (as always),

and it was nice to see the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner was one of the “better” (and expected) birds. A natural born acrobat, this smallish foliage-gleaner does above-ground skulkingas it forages in bromeliads and other aerial vegetation like a big chickadee (sort of).

Another good one was White-vented Euphonia, a bird that is sometimes very common in this area. Even in poor lighting, this little bird can reveal its identification by its tail wagging behavior.

On the raptor front, we enjoyed a view of a perched White Hawk against the green, Short-tailed Hawks above, and, maybe best of all, were treated to an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle in flight.

The target birds might not have shown but we can’t say that we didn’t try and in doing so, we still enjoyed some much appreciated avian cake during the trying days of a pandemic. We also enjoyed the hospitality of Albergue Socorro, one of many exciting birding spots in Costa Rica that are already open and ready to safely accept guests. I hope I can visit again soon.

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Birding Costa Rica Pandemic

Costa Rica Cracks Open the Door

It’s August and on the birding calendar, that translates to shorebirds and other “early” migrants. In Costa Rica, 2020, it also means that the country is open! Well, sort of because it depends on where you are coming from and following a few requirements, one of which may be a substantial expense.

The land borders are still shut to tourists but the Juan Santamaria airport is ready to accept flights from several countries in the European Union, the U.K. and Canada. For the time being, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and many other places have been left off the green light list. BUT, if you happen to come from Austria, France, or other nation for which travel to Costa Rica is permitted, before you hop on that plane, there are some other things that will need to be done. They include:

  1. Travel Insurance purchased from Costa Rica’s national insurance agency (known here as INS). The cost varies by age and ranges from $260 to more than $900 and is meant to cover $20,000 in medical expenses associated with COVID-19 and housing costs of at least $4000. Click here for the INS travel insurance plan. Keep in mind that this requirement may change as it has been under review since July 31st.
  2. A negative COVID-19 test. This must be taken at less than 48 hours before departure for Costa Rica.
  3. You will need to complete an official digital epidemiological form (Pase de Salud) available at ccss.now.sh or possibly salud.go.cr . 

EDIT, AUGUST 6– Due to a lot of blowback from the tourism industry and others, the insurance requirement has been changed. Costa Rica now also accepts international insurance policies but with these caveats:

  1. The policy must cover their scheduled visit to Costa Rica.
  2.  Coverage of medical expenses in Costa Rica related to COVID-19 for a minimum of $50,000.
  3. Minimum coverage of $2,000 for accommodation related to COVID-19.

But that’s not all, the insurance policy must also be verified by Costa Rica’s tourism institute/board. At the moment, there hasn’t been any clear means of stating how this will be done but there should be an update or at least link for this at the ICT site. From what I could gather from their statement, tourists will need to:

  1. Notify the Costa Rica Tourism Board with a request to approve their insurance policy that includes:
    1. A signed, notarized declaration in PDF format that indicates that the policy meets the coverage requirements mentioned above.
    2. A statement from the insurance company that the policy covers the tourist and other family members traveling with them and that it includes the required coverage.
    3. These statements must also be sent with the Pase de Salud mentioned above.
  2. The ICT will send a response to this request within 24 hours on workdays, 48 hours on weekends/holidays. This response will indicate whether the request has been accepted or denied. If denied, the tourists has 24 hours to correct the issue. At that time, they can also opt for purchasing one of the plans pre-approved by the Costa Rican government (about which information is still lacking but will hopefully be available soon).
  3. In the case of policies that are approved, the ICT will send a QR code that must be shown upon arrival in Costa Rica, to immigration authorities.

So what if you happen to live in the USA or other country not on the list?

If you aren’t on the list….

Seriously though, if you aren’t on the current list of accepted countries, there are a couple other options. They are:

  • Waiting until your country makes it onto the list of approved “guests”. When that happens, you’ve got the green light to travel to tropical latitudes and relax in the glow of stunners like Bay-headed Tanager.Not an immediate solution, but definitely the easiest and most cost-effective one.
  • Travel to a permitted country and then on to Costa Rica. Sounds like an easy fix! BUT, the authorities did notice this loophole and plugged it by requiring a two week stay without symptoms in the “transfer” country. This means that all travelers from places like the USA that travel to Costa Rica by way of Canada or France will need to spend two weeks in Canada or France (without symptoms) before coming to Costa Rica.
  • What if you are Canadian and have a lay-over in the USA on the way to Costa Rica? Nope, can’t do this but for the time being, it’s impossible in any case because the only flights from the USA with passengers are for repatriation purposes.

The Tico Times has some information about the current situation and requirements for visiting Costa Rica. In the meantime, I suggest using the Costa Rica Birds app to mark target species and study for your eventual trip to this very birdy country. Local birding guides and hundreds of birds will be waiting!

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

A Few Birds to Anticipate Watching in Costa Rica

More than 920 bird species have been recorded in Costa Rica. That would be a hefty list of possibilities for a country but when we are talking about a place roughly similar in size to West Virginia, Wales, or Denmark, yeah, that’s a heck of a lot of birds in a small area! Granted, a good number of those species are vagrants but at the end of the day, the size of the official bird list for Costa Rica hints at nothing less than fantastic birding.

That would be the type of birding where you see lifer after lifer after lifer, where the new birds keep popping up while enjoying more views of trogons, macaws, and toucans.

Black-throated Trogon

It’s birding that includes mega flocks of glittering tanagers, climbing woodcreepers, flitting flycatchers, and other species moving through your field of view.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Spotted Woodcreeper
Tufted Flycatcher

It’s watching an array of iridescent hummingbirds and testing the limits of photography as they zip back and forth.

White-bellied Mountain-gem

Thanks to protected areas in several major ecoregions, the birding opportunities in Costa Rica are both diverse and abundant. In terms of birds to look forward to, there are too many species to mention. Today, these cool birds came to mind:

Motmots

Broad-billed Motmot

Motmots are fair-sized birds that sort of look like rollers. Several have long tails with a racket-like shape and are plumaged in shades of green, blue, and rufous. Most love the shady side of life but since they also perch for long periods, they make great subjects for the lens. Six species occur in Costa Rica, visit the right places with a good guide and you can see all of them.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Crowned Woodnymph

One of the 50 plus hummingbird species that have been recorded in Costa Rica, this sparkling bird is common in lowland and foothill rainforests! On a personal note, I can still recall the first time I saw this species. I was birding the parking area at Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park at the end of 1992, looking at the second growth on the other side of the highway. In quick succession, I saw my lifer Buff-throated Saltator, Lineated Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and Crimson-collared Tanager. Then, to top off the lifer cake, this glittering purple and green hummingbird, a male Crowned Woodnymph, zipped into my field of view. I have seen many more since then but that first woodnymph was the best.

Collared Redstart and other highland species

Collared Redstart

Costa Rica has wood-warblers, this ones entertains the eye in the highlands. Like several other birds of the mountains, it only lives in Costa Rica and western Panama.

Macaws and Toucans

Fantastic, large birds, thanks to protection and reintroductions, macaws and toucans are fairly common in various parts of Costa Rica.

Scarlet Macaw
Great Green Macaw
Keel-billed Toucan

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Another fancy tropical bird, jacamars sort of look like bee-eaters, a living carnaval dart or hummingbird on steroids. It’s pleasing to know that the Rufous-tailed Jacamar is common in many parts of Costa Rica and loves the lens.

With 900 other birds on the list, this is a small sampling of birds waiting in Costa Rica. It’s worth mentioning that Resplendent Quetzals are here too. Want to know where to go and get ready for that eventual trip? Please support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, hope to eventually celebrate birds with you in Costa Rica!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica, July 2020- Where I Would Prefer to be Birding

July in Costa Rica, a month marked by a respite from the rains. Birding tours take advantage of the break in the weather to come to Costa Rica and watch quetzals, Emerald Tanagers, and three dozen hummingbird species. They could just as well catch the same exciting wave of birding on trips to Costa Rica in June, September, or any other month of the year but for the visiting birder, a chance of sun beckons more than a promise of rain. Personally, I almost prefer the rain because although I may need to sit out the birding game during those occasional thunderstorms, the cloudy innings are going to be full of avian excitement. There are times when the mixed flocks just don’t stop and when a fruiting tree dishes up a constant, parading banquet of tanagers.

Emerald Tanager

Blue-and gold Tanager

Such a birding boost tends to happen more on days of cloud and rain although I will admit that a few sunny days are nice. This is why July typically brings us some very welcome groups of birders during an otherwise slow and low season and of course, that bit of July business acts as an important injection of economic activity for every aspect of the tourism industry, birding included.

In a normal July, visit Carara National Park, Monteverde, or other sites and you might run into a birding tour or two. You might feel the lifer excitement emanating from other birders as they see their first Red-capped Manakins, watch flocks of parrots fly past the overlook at Cerro Lodge, locate a speck of a hawk-eagle flying high as it calls from above.

The tower view at Cerro Lodge, an excellent spot for views and shots of flyby parrots.

Not this July but we all know that 2020 isn’t a year for much of anything typical. While trying to stay well, and survive both literally and economically, blessed are those of us who can still find time for birding. Many find more than enough time even if the birding does take place at or close to home. In doing so, in hearing the descending calls of a White-eared Ground-Sparrow, at least we can be reminded that avian diversity can occur much closer to home than expected, that many birds can thrive in a variety of settings.

It’s wonderful to have parrots, ground-sparrows, and other interesting birds near our place in Heredia, Costa Rica but even the most appreciative of birders need occasional changes to their avian scene. Out back, I look past the vine-ridden second growth of the riparian zone and urge my gaze up onto the slopes of the nearby mountains, the volcanoes that host barbets, Black-cheeked Warblers, even quetzals. Some of my wanted year birds are up there doing their thing. In a July sans pandemic, I would probably be birding up that way.

White-eared Ground-Sparrow- I hear this cool bird out back on a daily basis.

I might bird the Poas area although would more likely be checking out a road that borders the cloud forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. That less traveled way connecting Varablanca in the highlands to Socorro in the foothills offers a precious glimpse into wilderness that may host Solitary Eagle and other rare birds. Would I get lucky with antpittas and ground-cuckoos species at an antswarm? Would a forest-falcon make a sudden, stealthy appearance? When the forest is intact, when its lush, complicated body of green and moss and massive trees creeps up and down ravines for several kilometers, it feels like anything is possible.

A view along this road.

With high clearance and a four wheel drive, a birder can explore that exciting byway, bird the way down to lower elevations where glittering flocks of tanagers move through the bromeliads, where White Hawks call from the mist, where we can find hawk-eagles and other birds of the deep wild places. In fact, forget the vehicle, a trek down that road would be an exciting expedition coupled with the promise of avian adventure. The trek would provide much needed insight into raptor and cotinga populations. It might tell us if umbrellabirds still inhabit those forests, and might even reveal the presence of unicorn birds like the Gray-headed Piprites and the Black-crowned Antpitta.

It would be best to do this erstwhile expedition for at least three nights, camping along the way. Maybe four would be even better because the more time you spend in quality tropical habitat, the more you see, the better the chance of detecting a higher percentage of what is truly there. It’s like opening the window to see just a bit more, the stuff that was just outside of view, gazing longer at a complex painting to eventually find treasures hidden in plain sight.

Even with that window of focused observation, it still wouldn’t be everything because birds wander, some are in constant natural stealth mode, tropical birds play by their own complex set of rules. But, you won’t find anything if you don’t look and a trek down that road will reveal more of what’s going on than a one-day, bumpy drive. I hope I can do that mini-expedition some day, explore that road at leisure because no matter what I find, I already know that the birding will be nothing less than fantastic.

One of the best places to use as a base while exploring the Varablanca-Socorro road is Albergue Socorro. With luck, in 2021, another lodge with fantastic birding potential in this area will also be open and ready to impress. To learn more about where to look for birds in Costa Rica and to get ready for any type of birding trip to this beautiful country, please support my blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy birding!

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pandemic birding

Pandemic Update in Costa Rica, July, 2020

Several months into our global pandemic and there’s no end in sight. I have to remind myself that it will end at some point, that tourism will return to Costa Rica at some time, but it won’t be soon enough. Perhaps some tourists will come from Australia or a few other places where the virus is kept under control but I don’t count on it because up in here, it’s no longer under control. Unfortunately, the virus has also taken off in Costa Rica, community spread is occurring in some areas and this makes it very unlikely for the country to establish any sort of tourism bubble with anyone anytime soon.

To me, in part, it happened because too many people didn’t take the situation seriously. Despite a regular education campaign by the government to educate people about the disease, protocols to follow, and behaviors to avoid, too many folks still went to parties and other social gatherings and just didn’t follow correct protocols. It was and is illegal to have parties but there wasn’t enough effective enforcement. Even though a good number of people did follow the rules, and stores counted and controlled the number of people allowed inside, and there was and is constant information about the virus, all you need is a low percentage of the population to spread the sickness and so here we are.

Even with driving restrictions, closures, and other attempts to slow the spread, and with the spread slowed down considerably, I still knew that this was very likely going to happen because literally every time I ventured outside, I saw several people speaking closely, face to face and without masks. We always saw people touching their faces and even hugging each other. Not everyone, but more than enough. I say, though, it would certainly be far worse if a good number of people hadn’t been careful, hadn’t followed guidelines and restrictions.

I knew that community spread was certain after hearing about the police having to routinely break up several parties and clandestine bars, about the lack of adequate measures at packaging plants, and despite the best efforts of the authorities, not being able to control undocumented immigration from Nicaragua. This factor in particular was and is a significant problem for stopping the spread of the virus in Costa Rica because the response of the authoritarian government of Nicaragua to the pandemic has been one of denial followed by little else. The president and his wife (who is the vice president) actually held parades and other major social gatherings as a show of faith against the virus (I wish I was kidding!). In Nicaragua, the particular mix of proteins and genetic material known as COVID-19 has responded quite faithfully indeed.

I can’t even imagine how difficult the situation must be in Nicaragua (both in terms of health care and economics) but I have had some hints and it’s likely why more Nicaraguans have been trying to enter Costa Rica. Sadly, at least a few have come in to Costa Rica, went to the hospital, and subsequently died from COVID-19 shortly thereafter. I can’t blame them for wanting to enter Costa Rica y any means possible; people will do desperate things to survive, especially when they have children than depend on them. Regarding the spread of the virus, this latter factor has certainly come into play in certain neighborhoods in Costa Rica because people who don’t have savings can’t afford not to work.

Obviously, people with no food will do what it takes to find work or do whatever it takes to find food for their kids. In such situations, the virus becomes an afterthought and that could be one of the main factors why the virus has taken off in poor areas of San Jose. It didn’t take much for the virus to take hold in such places and with so many people living in close conditions, it was a matter of days before hundreds of people had it. As of July, Costa Rica has several thousand cases, we are hearing about one or more people dying every day, and the government has responded with a near quarantine.

Counties with a certain incidence of cases and proximity to other counties with a high number of cases now have more driving restrictions and a near total stop to the local economy. On days that a vehicle is permitted to drive, you can only do so between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. and are only allowed to go to supermarkets, pharmacies, and hospitals. You can also go to work but only with a special note. The new restrictions will be in place for a week but will certainly be extended.

Since the goal is to see if the spread can be significantly slowed down, and that won’t happen within a week, I think it’s accurate to say that much of Costa Rica is currently in a certain state of long-term quarantine. Since we can walk as far as we want and probably ride bicycles, it’s not a total quarantine (that would of course be much worse) but, to a certain degree, the closures and lack of ability for transit approximate one.

For some time, I wished the government would have shown images of people who were sick and dying, shown the catastrophic damage that can happen to lungs, try something that makes you pay attention, that forces more people to follow guidelines but even then, I don’t think it would have made a big difference. So here we are, I am grateful that we have masks and have been using them, that we can have a better chance of survival.

I am also grateful for the birds we hear everyday. Every morning and afternoon, a couple of Spot-bellied Bobwhites are out there calling.

Amazingly, I can now say that I have more than my fill of that cool little quail, a bird very similar to one that I dreamed of seeing as a kid. That northern version was a svelte little bird that still ranged just out of reach of Niagara. I loved those pictures of it in the grass, I didn’t care if it was sort of like a chicken, in the city, I never saw those things anyways.

I wondered what it would be like to hear it say its name in that sunny grass, in places where there was no doubt so many more of those other birds that I couldn’t see, that were just out of range. I used to climb these Mulberry trees that grew in a vacant lot at the end of the street. We called it “the field” and it was actually the filled in remains of a canal but it had become a field, a place where we played baseball and where some very few wild things came to live and where if I climbed high enough in one of those trees, I could just see the blue glint of the Niagara River and the green shores of Canada. Somewhere way past there were warblers and other birds, way far west were impossible Western Tanagers and Stellar’s Jays. I wanted to fly past that horizon, away from the sidewalks and concrete of those streets, some day I did.