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admin on August 14th, 2014

Getting ready for a birding trip to Costa Rica? Hope to come to this birdy land at some happy, future time? If so, start learning about the Costa Rican avifauna now because we aren’t talking about 300 birds to look at but a country list of 900 plus birds. Some of those species are familiar, others are from your best birding dreams, and then there are the birds that supposedly belong to the same families as the ones at home, but look like the feathered variety of the X-Men.

The super White-throated Magpie-Jay.

Don’t believe me? Just raise your bins in Costa Rica and check out those big, bold wrens. While we also have the small and plain Troglodytes, I’m talking about the big, babbleresque birds thatd defy your definition of “wren”. Unlike their smaller cousins, these guys actually do have appearances that compete with their sonorous songs:

Rufous-naped Wren: Fun to watch, easy to see, and always singing. You can’t miss this one on a trip to Costa Rica.

Rufous-naped Wren

Band-backed Wren: Also arboreal but a bird of humid forest on the Caribbean slope. More common in the past, they can still be seen in lowland and foothill rainforest. It’s cool to watch these patterned wrens forage with a mixed flock.

Band-backed Wren.

Rufous-breasted Wren: Smart looking bird! It likes to skulk in vine tangles in Carara National Park.

The Rufous-breasted Wren is not as big as the others but too beautiful to leave off of the list.

Spot-breasted Wren: This one is much more a bird of Nicaragua north to Mexico but you can see also see them in Costa Rica around Cano Negro. Song of Spot-breasted Wren.

Stripe-breasted Wren: Learn one of the main songs given by this bird to know that you aren’t hearing a pygmy-owl. This one can be tough to see because it loves to hang out in the dense vegetation of wet rainforest. Listen to a Stripe-breasted Wren.

Riverside Wren: Yeah, they do like riparian zones but the name fails to hint at their exotic plumage. Watch for this one along forested creeks and streams from Carara on south. Riverside Wren song.

Bay Wren: This one is a real beauty and looks more like some babbler from the Sundaic bioregion. You will be happy to know that it’s also a common resident of second growth on the Caribbean slope.

Bay Wren

Rufous and white Wren: The name says it all when it comes to its appearance but the song is magic. Listen and watch for this wren in riparian zones and moist forest on the Pacific slope. Rufous and white Wren song.

Rufous and white Wren

Banded Wren: This common, dry forest species is another one to listen to. Banded Wren song.

Banded Wren

Plain Wren: Definitely the plainest of the bunch and a lot like a Carolina, you will hear it sing and call from coffee farms and second growth. Plain Wren song.

Plain Wren

Black-throated Wren: This wren likes to pretend that it’s an antbird but is all wren when it sings. Black-throated Wren song.

Black-throated Wren

Black-bellied Wren: Possibly the finest of the bunch, it’s nevertheless a pain to see. Learn the beautiful song to know what’s hiding in that dense second growth. With enough patience, you might see one at places like Rancho Mastatal, the Golfo Dulce lowlands, and other humid forest sites on the southern Pacific slope.

Black-bellied Wren

Black-bellied Wren song.

These aren’t the only wrens in Costa Rica but they are the bold and beautiful. If I can ever manage photos of Nightingale and Scaly-breasted Wrens, I will write about those gnomish wrens with amazing songs.

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admin on August 7th, 2014

Do you find yourself in Costa Rica these days? Do you wish you were in Costa Rica? Check out the following news items for insights, action, and intrigue about birds and birding in Costa Rica!:

  • Shorebirds are in town: Well, it’s their city of mudflats and shorelines and not bumpy roads where Rufous-collared Sparrows hop but if you are a birder, you get the picture. Sightings of shorebird species are coming in from Guacalillo and flooded fields in Guanacaste. Could someone please brave the heat waves of Chomes to see who happens to be probing the mud for worms and other invert delicacies?

    Least Sandpipers are coming to town.

  • Familiarize yourself with Peruvian Boobies and Inca Terns: No Peruvian Booby yet for Costa Rica but they really could be out there! According to Xenornis, several have now shown up at Amador, Panama and maybe there’s an Inca Tern to be found as well. If you see a booby with a white head, take a picture and send it to the AOCR.
  • Check out the 2014 Birding and Nature Festival in Costa Rica: It’s happening on September 19th to September 21st, includes guided walks at the EARTH campus and the Las Brisas Reserve, and cool bird talks. Very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warbler and other migrants in Costa Rica, and lots of cool residents, plus owls on the night walks.

    You might see a Sunbittern.

  • National Park Fee Hike: $10 per day apparently wasn’t quite enough to help fund the government (no, it doesn’t seem that those funds go back into the parks), so the fee for tourists has been raised to $12. Keeping with bureaucratic traditon, the birding unfriendly opening hours of 8 to 4 have not changed. Where to complain? I’m not sure but if I find out, will publish that on this blog.
  • Very cool video by someone else: Speaking of videos, I didn’t do this one but recommend watching it. Done by a young Canadian birder about his time in Costa Rica with his dad. Lots of nice shots, and enthusiastic commentary.
  • Almost at 600 species for the year: No, not major news really, but good news for me! I am just a few species shy of 600 for the year. Does that mean I will stop at 600? Of course not, the constant pseudo Big Year will march on like penguins in search of destiny, adventure, and fish!
  • Writing for 10,000 Birds: I will finish off with another tidbit of news about myself. I just became one of the beat writers for 10,000 Birds (a super cool birding blog).  Look for my posts every other Saturday, first one on the 9th.

Have any Costa Rican bird news you want to share? Send me a comment and it will probably make it onto this blog.

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admin on July 31st, 2014

I have had the chance to visit a lot of places in Costa Rica to look for birds and for that, I am grateful. Birding trips, guiding, and living in the seismic land of the Mangrove Hummingbird has brought me to well known classic birding sites, lesser known spots, and birding locales waaaay off the beaten track. Nevertheless, I still have a bunch of sites I have never been to and there’s always more to learn and experience at places I have birded for years (such is the complex beauty of tropical ecosystems). One of the main places on my list of sites to hit was Laguna de Hule.

Sign to Hule.

This site was way overdue as a place I have never birded because:

  • I see signs for it every time I go past Cinchona.
  • It didn’t seem to be that far from home.
  • On Google Earth, it looks like it supports a fair-sized area of forest.
  • I have heard of a few good birds from there including possible Gray-headed Piprites and Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

I needed and have wanted to go to Laguna de Hule and this past Sunday, I finally got the chance to bird the place with my faithful birding friend, Susan. We drove up to misty Varablanca right at dawn and made our way past the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Cinchona shortly thereafter. Given the better chances at birds in the early morning, we couldn’t help but make a couple of stops, one above the waterfall gardens, and one down past Cinchona. Some birds were calling and it was nice to hear Dark Pewee, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and Prong-billed Barbet among other cloud forest species. It was quieter near Cinchona but we still picked up Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Elegant Euphonia, and a few tanagers.

Those colors are en Elegant Euphonia hiding in a Mistletoe plant.

After following the signs to Laguna Hule, we left the main road and began our rocky drive to the Laguna. It took longer than expected (which wasn’t a surprise since we didn’t know how far or how bad the road would be) but there was some birding on the way. We ignored the pastures but made brief stops in second growth and forested riparian zones to hear and see expected species like Slaty Spinetail, Dusky Antbird, wrens, saltators, and other edge species.

Habitat on the way there.

As we approached the Laguna, we saw a few overlooks for it and that’s when I realized that it was much bigger and much further away than expected. Actually, it wasn’t far but just deeper than expected.

A look at the lagoon.

Following the road past the overlooks brought us to more forested spots, and a muddy hole that we couldn’t pass, even with a four-wheel drive vehicle.

We saw this Crested Guan there.

We left the car and started hiking down the road. It passed through some nice foothill forest, second growth, and overlooks that took in the canopy of forest around the inside of the lagoon. We also saw a lot of clouds and mist but somehow neglected to bring umbrellas, ponchos, or even a plastic bag. That neglect was made even more foolish by both of us having first hand knowledge of the common, heavy rains that happen in Costa Rica along with lots of recent heavy rain on the Caribbean slope (where we were).

There was also a good overlook of forest canopy.

We saw a few birds, including these Short-billed Pigeons.

As we walked down the road, we saw and heard some foothill species here and there but it became increasingly difficult to look at them or take pictures because of the equally increasing mist. Just as we reached a stream, the mist coalesced into light rain that turned into a major downpour a few seconds later. This was the point when I wondered how I had possibly managed to not bring the umbrella I had left in the car, or why I hadn’t brought any ziplock bags in my pack like I usually do to keep the camera and recording equipment dry if it rains.

Misty forest at Laguna de Hule.

Without a word, we started walking back uphill as I frantically looked for some large leaf to use as an umbrella. Nope, there weren’t any of those “poor man’s umbrella” plants around but there were some promising Heliconias leaves. I grabbed one but couldn’t break the stem! By this time, I was pretty soaked and made a note to get a machete that would have sliced through that stem like the proverbial hot butter (or a stick of Numar- might not get that unless you live in Tiquica). As Susan walked ahead, I trudged uphill hoping for a big leaf as water streamed down my face.

Luckily, my birding prayers were answered as I saw a suitable, stemless leaf on the ground shortly thereafter! A ha! It was big enough to cover the top of my daypack and so on I went, clasping that leaf tight over the top of the pack and thinking about the dry interior of the car. Fortunately, the car wasn’t that far away although we were so soaked through that it probably didn’t matter if it was a mile or 100 feet. Even better, my lucky leaf had helped keep my stuff sufficiently dry to save it from total watery destruction.

We left Laguna de Hule with the briefest of birding gen but saw enough to see that the place definitely warrants a longer (hopefully drier) visit. We also stopped at the Cinchona Cafe to enjoy busy feeders and super close Prong-billed Barbets.

Super close Prong-billed Barbet.

Barbet at arm's length.

During the brief birding at and near Hule, some of the more interesting species were Crested Guan, Laughing Falcon, Brown-hooded Parrot, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Dusky Antbird, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, White-ruffed Manakin, Bay, Black-throated, White-breasted Wood, and Nightingale Wrens, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Carmiol’s Tanager.

I’m not sure what else is in there but the place definitely deserves more visits!

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It’s 2014 and it looks like the El Nino warm water deal is back in town. This is when the normally cold, nutrient rich water in the eastern (South American) Pacific becomes much warmer and less nutrient rich than normal. The small fish aren’t where they are usually found and the birds and larger fish that feed on them suffer. It’s actually a bit worse than suffering because they sadly perish if they lack the strength to find food elsewhere. Die-offs of boobies and other birds in Peru and Chile show that El Nino is having its sinister effect and yes, some birds are making it north of their usual haunts (Gray Gull and Peruvian Booby have shown up in Panama).

There is a fair chance that those two species and other vagrants are looking for food in Costa Rican waters right now (!). All it takes is someone to find those feathered needles in a watery haystack but given the size of the search area and need for a boat, chances of crossing paths with those El Nino birds are about as small as a lost barnacle. We knew that when myself and some friends took the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry the other day, but that didn’t stop us from watching, waiting, and hoping.

To jump to the end of the story, no, we did not find an Inca Tern, Gray Gull, or other rare visitor to our shores, but we did see some nice seabirds, including more Blue-footed Boobies than normal.

One of the Blue-footed Boobies we saw.

Even before we reached the ferry, scoping the morning waters of the gulf revealed distant flocks of Black Terns and a few unidentified storm-petrels!

Watching from shore.

At 9 AM, we left the dock along with a bunch of people headed to the beaches of Tambor, Montezuma, and other places on the Nicoya Peninsula. While they enjoyed the scenery and drank a few beers, we scanned the water, made odd exclamations like, “There’s a booby!”, and hoped for avian weirdness.

The ferry departs, we watch for birds, and some people watch us.

There weren’t huge numbers of birds on the the way to Paquera, but we still managed several Brown Booby, two Common Terns (hey, they aren’t that common in Costa Rica and it was a year bird), a few Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels, and our first Blue-footed Booby (a distant one on the island). Gulls and other terns, except for a few Royals, were notably absent.

Watching for birds from the boat.

After exiting the ferry in hot Paquera, we just got right back on, found a good spot at the front top deck, and started watching.

We saw these cool fish at Paquera.

Further out, we noticed schooling fish and a lot more Sulid activity than the way to Paquera. We saw quite a few Brown Booby and were happy to see almost the same number of Blue-footeds, some right near the boat!

Check out the schooling fish!

Brown Boobies near the boat.

A Blue-footed Booby takes to the air in front of the ferry.

A flight shot.

Showing the distinctive white spot on the back.

Even better, we got fairly close looks at several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, and a few Black Storm-Petrels zipping over the waves.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

Since we didn’t have any large groups of birds, we decided not to have another ferry ride, and made a quick stop at the Caldera mangroves instead for Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and a glimpsed Mangrove Hummingbird.

While the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry isn’t going to chum or stop for any birds, it is a stable, cheap way to get in a bit of pelagic birding in Costa Rica. Save money by parking the car at Franks Cabins (just down the street from the ferry and 800 colones an hour or 4000 colones for more than 5 hours) instead of putting the vehicle on the ferry ($24 or so each way). I hope I get the chance to do some more ferry birding soon because there is probably a few super good birds out there in the Gulf of Nicoya!

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All of us birders love cotingas. Along with the manakins, those weird, beautiful birds are the neotropical convergence answer to the birds of paradise, and like those Papuan feathered crazies, a lot of cotingas are brightly colored, make weird noises, have weird shapes, and would be proud, card carrying members of the feathered fancy fab club if there was such a thing. The only problem with cotingas is that several are kind of hard to see, especially the shiny blue ones. This is no fault of their own because they evolved to live in large areas of primary rainforest and not patches of forest in a hot, chiggery sea of cattle and grass.

Cattle farming in the humid tropics is a tragic, unsustainable scourge.

Since they can’t live in pastures, some of these amazing birds have also declined and have even become endangered. In Costa Rica, the Yellow-billed is critically endangered, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is endangered (and maybe on its way to being cricitally so), and the Turquoise is Vulnerable. Since there are few reliable sites for the Turquoise Cotinga, especially possible as an easy day trip from San Jose, it was a happy surprise to see this beauty at and near Rancho Mastatal the past weekend. I wondered if the species might be present but didn’t have high hopes because it’s usually rare and hard to find just about everywhere in the country (the exception being Luna Lodge and other sites in the Osa Peninsula).

On our first morning of birding, my scope scanning of a forested ridge hit paydirt when the bright blue image of a male cotinga appeared, as per usual, right at the tip top of a tall tree. Luckily, it stayed long enough for everyone in our group to parse the distant blue bird out of the green background. We were pretty happy to see this tough species once so it was a surprise to get another one on the walk back to Rancho Mastatal! This other bird seemed far enough from the first to be a different individual and was seen perched high in the bare branches of a dead tree. We would have easily missed it if it hadn’t fluttered and revealed itself with one of the only sounds it makes, that of twittering, twinkling sounds made with the wings. After hearing that sound and catching some movement in the tree, it dawned on me that we had another cotinga! Even then, it wasn’t easy to find because most of the bird was obscured by a branch. Eventually, we positioned ourselves for more scoped views before it flew off into the forest.

A Turquoise Cotinga that was close enough to photograph at Rincon de Osa.

There were no more cotingas that day but on the following morning, while watching the canopy near the goats at Rancho Mastatal (yes, goats, it’s a working organic farm), a bird flies into the top of a Ceiba and becomes another male cotinga in the binocs! More scope views, this time closer, to appreciate the gem-like colors before it flew away. This could have been the same male as the one in the dead tree on the previous day but when it comes down to it, we had three sightings of Turquoise Cotinga with rather little effort. I don’t know how big or small the population is at that site but even if you don’t find a fruiting tree, Rancho Mastatal lends itself to seeing this and other canopy birds because there is more than one excellent spot to view the canopy of the forest and tall trees ( including figs that could be amazing when fruiting), both on the grounds of Rancho Mastatal and along roads next to Cangreja National Park.

We saw a cotinga at this site on a distant, forested ridge.

Another cotinga viewing spot.

Other benefits of birding this area are:

  • Not too far from the San Jose area: While it’s not a mere 40 minute drive, it probably takes around two hours or so along a curvy road that leaves from Ciudad Colon.
  • Birding en route is alright: The first part of the road is awfully deforested but eventually passes through patches of nice habitat along with one area that might be the best site in the country for Costa Rican Brush Finch (we had 4 or more in an hour on the side of the road). This is the patch of habitat just after Salitrales.

    Costa Rica Brush Finch habitat.

    We also saw Bay-headed Tanagers.

  • Birding at all hours: The national park sticks to the same 8 AM opening office hours as other parks but you can see most of the same species along a couple of quiet roads that pass by the edge of the park. We had the cotinga on one of those roads (main one between Mastatal and Salitrales).

    Good forest and birding on the road to Zapaton.

    We had good looks at Tawny-winged Woodcreeper in this area.

  • Several other humid forest birds: This area is more humid than accessible forests in Carara. Therefore, birds like Golden-naped Woodpecker, Baird’s Trogon, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, and Ruddy Quail Dove are fairly commn. As for Blue-crowned Manakin, that pretty bird is one of the most common species in the area!

    Golden-naped Woodpecker

    Black-bellied Wren

    Male Blue-crowned Manakin

    Blue-crowned Manakin at another angle.

  • Lots of herps: Frogs seem to be more common here than other sites. The park should really be checked for possible populations of Harlequin Toads and other rare species.

    A cool anole.

  • Rancho Mastatal: This very special place mostly focuses on giving hand-on courses to learn how to live more sustainably with our surroundings, especially in the tropics. They are actively doing this, work with the local community, and grow a huge variety of organic crops. I would describe the food as being “organic gourmet” and if you like all natural foods with creative recipes, you will love this place! Lodging is also offered and they have some nice trails.

If you need the cotinga and brush finch, and would like to bird an under-birded place with a lot of potential, take a trip to Rancho Mastatal and nearby. Even if you don’t stay at the Rancho, there is plenty of excellent birding at the edge of the national park, and can ask about using the Rancho Mastatal trails.

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Summer seems to be this ironic time of the year when birders don’t watch birds. Yes, to any non-birders out there, this is oddly true. Despite the warm, inviting weather, breeding birds, and lots more life than the dead of winter, this is when birders tend to sit back, sip a Mint Julep, or partake in other activities that don’t include binoculars. The birders out there know why a lot of us tend to get lazy in June and July but for those of you are wondering what the deal might be, it all comes down to seeing the same old stuff.

I admit that I get lacadaisical about the Silver-throated Tanager.

Yes, a lot of birders get lacadaisical about getting out and birding sites near home at this time of the year because they don’t expect to see anything new. They feel that they already know what’s out there (and getting up at dawn doesn’t help either). However, as much as we think we know about our natural surroundings, we usually know a lot less than we think. If we don’t turn off the TV and get out into the wild, we won’t see any changes that might be happening in bird populations (especially with climate change going on), and aren’t going to find a Brown-chested Martin, out of range hummingbird,  or some other wacko vagrant.

No, not an out of range hummingbird for Costa Rica but the Cinnamon Hummingbird is always cool to see.

In Costa Rica, we have less of a problem with avoiding the outdoors during the summer months because the high degree of biodiversity always guarantees chances at rare birds throughout the year. Although we aren’t going to see any Boreal migrants right now, there are more than 600 breeding birds to look for, and chances at a rare Austral migrant or two. Here are some other tidbits and things to look forward to if you happen to be headed to Costa Rica this July:

  • It might rain more than you expect: Ok, so that might not be what you hoped to read but one should always be prepared. Forecasters are saying that this year’s mini dry season in July will be wetter than normal so bring the rain gear and get ready for birding that may be just as challenging as it is exciting. However, to be honest, I hope it does rain more than normal in July because the rainy season started late anyways. Ecosystems in Costa Rica need the rain because the plants, birds, and so on are adapted to an environment at some sites that see 4 to 6 meters a year. Two meters just isn’t going to work.
  • Don’t be discouraged by the forecast: So, if you thought, “Crap! I should have gone to Costa Rica in March”, put the reins on fustration because it’s probably not going to rain the entire time and cloudy weather with some rain boosts bird activity in the (you guessed it) rainforest. Seriously, a cloudy day with occasional showers is always exciting for birding in Costa Rica.

    You might see more jacamars.

  • Expect birding similar to the dry season: Other than the lack of northern migrants, the birding is pretty similar to the dry season. In other words, this is a great time of year to bird Costa Rica and that means chances at heart-racing mixed flocks, fruiting trees full of tanagers, manakins, and maybe a cotinga or two, no shortage of hummingbirds, and the excitement goes on… The main difference might be the lower numbers of tourists compared to the high dry season months and that’s not so bad either.
  • Bare-necked Umbrellabird appears to have nested at Curi-Cancha: A female and young have been seen at this excellent reserve near Monteverde! Lots of other great birds to see there too.

    The umbrellabird is sort of unbelievable.

  • Keep an eye out for frugivores in odd places: After nesting, most of the frugivorous species in Costa Rica move around in search of food and many move to lower elevations. This is a time of year when Red-fronted Parrotlet can show up at fruiting figs in the Central Valley and other sites, and who knows what else might turn up?
  • Enjoy the bellbird serenade up in the mountains: Although the bellbird population that nests in the mountains above San Jose is very small and a tiny shadow of what it probably was when there was forest in the Central Valley, you might hear one or two around Poas, Barva, and other sites. To catch the best bellbird action, visit the Monteverde area, and sites near San Ramon, on the Pacific slope of the Talamancas, and the Rio Macho Reserve near Tapanti. Three-wattled Bellbird sound.
  • Keep an eye out for odd seabirds: Forecasters have also predicted a major El Nino effect and this could turn up some serious rarities in July. Reports of Inca Tern, and Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies could be indicators of more rarities to come! I know that I will be looking for them in July!
  • The latest update for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is available: There are now more than 620 species on the app and vocalizations for more than 360 of them (including Black-crowned Antpitta, Ocellated Antbird, and Keel-billed Motmot along with hundreds of more common species), lots of updated and improved images, and a quicker way to look for birds by group. If you already bought the app, get the update for free.

    The fancy Ocellated Antbird.

Enjoy your July trip to Costa Rica, hope to see you in the field! – I will be the short guy with a Swarovski ghetto scope and gray Adidas hat.

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Any birder who has been to Costa Rica knows what “San Gerardo de Dota” means. This montane location translates to “Resplendent Quetzal” and/or “Savegre Lodge” for most birders but for me, it also means “Miriam’s Cafe”. The birding is definitely great in this Talamancan Valley, especially at Savegre, but there are other options for accommodations. The budget birder will enjoy a stay at Miriam’s Quetzals (the teasing official name) and not just because a clean, cozy cabin goes for around $40 bucks a night. There really is a Miriam and this super nice senora is also super accommodating and makes delicious, local food. I’m not kidding. I have been to a bunch of small hotels and the like in Costa Rica and elsewhere and Miriam is at the upper levels of niceness. She also bakes/grills the best cornbread I have had in Costa Rica and the birds think so too!

I think this juvenile Flame-colored Tanager is eating cornbread.

Miriam has a feeder just out back and it gets some really cool birds. You can watch this feeder while eating, and when I was there, she also left Enya’s Watermark playing with every meal. Since I dig the ethereal, elfie sounds of Enya, that was cool with me.

Feeder and ghetto scope accompanied by Enya.

The feeder was sort of dominated by Acorn Woodpeckers and Flame-colored Tanagers.

A female Flame-colored Tanager looks content after munching on cornbread. That's just how I felt.

This Yellowhammerish looking creature is a young Flame-colored Tanager.

Yellow-thighed Finches also showed up.

This Yellow-thighed Finch was caught with its mouth full.

Even Large-footed Finches hopped up onto the feeder.

What one of the cabins looks like.

Lots of other birds show up in the area too, including Yellow-bellied Siskins, Yellow-winged Vireos, quetzals from October to January, and even Unspotted Saw-whet Owl on one of their trails (seriously!).

Black-capped Flycatcher is also common.

Sooty Thrush is common too.

I look forward to my next visit to Miriam’s. Maybe next time, I will get pictures of the wood-partridge, the spotless little owl, and other cool mountain birds.

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admin on June 13th, 2014

There a bunch of super cool birds to see once you head south of the border. Since you are reading this blog, you are probably well aware of that statement but if you have yet to raise the bins below the Tropic of Cancer, let’s just say that yes, you are in for a heckuva treat! Biodiversity goes crazy south of the border and among all of those flycatchers, wrens, and other familiar families are several unfamiliar bunches of birds. One of those new avian groups is the Momotidae family. These are the motmots and they are just as exotic as their family name implies!

The Blue-crowned Motmot is a spectacular feeder bird.

Yep, these are must-see birds for sure so that is why I am writing this post. I want every birder to see motmots in Costa Rica (along with casual birders and the non-birding crowd). For the birder, these racket-tailed crazies are sweet as a coconut creme pie. For those who use tiny 10 x 20 binocs and people who say “seagull”, motmots have a fair chance at being a serious starter bird. I think they would work very well as birding starter ambassadors because they are sort of big, have beautiful colors, weird tails, a cool, black mask that gives them even more character, and usually sit still long enough for a photo or two. In other words, motmots are hard to ignore when you see them and they can even get noticed by non-birders. The best news for the brider, however, is that motmots are common!

Sure, two species in Costa Rica are tough but even those are regular in the right places. So, here is where you can see those two tough motmots ones along with the common ones:

  • Gardens and coffee farms in the Central Valley: Yes! Ok, so only the Blue-crowned is present but it is still a motmot and a fantastic looking one. Go birding in moist forest or any coffee farm in the morning or evening and you have a really good chance of seeing this cool backyard bird. I often espy them on roadside wires near the house just after dawn.

    Blue-crowned Motmots are pretty common on the Pacific slope.

  • Dry forest, even scrubby areas: This is where you see Turquoise-browed Motmot and once again, amazingly, this stunner is a common species. Cerro Lodge is a great place to watch this beautiful bird at your leisure but they are also common in most lowland Pacific Slope habitats from Tarcoles north to the border.

    The Turquoise-browed Motmot might be the most colorful resident species of dry forest habitats in Costa Rica.

  • Lowland and foothill rainforest: Bird the Caribbean slope in these habitats and you have a fair chance of seeing Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots. Both are fairly common wherever there is forest (even tall second growth) and embankments where they can nest. Sarapiqui, Laguna del Lagarto, and any lowland or foothill site with some forest usually has these beauties.

    Here is a Broad-billed Motmot in forest at Quebrada Gonzalez.

    A Broad-billed Motmot from La Selva.

    The similar but larger Rufous Motmot from the Nature Pavilion.

  • The northern volcanoes, Arenal Hanging  Bridges, and the Arenal Peninsula Road: Places like Heliconias Lodge, Celeste Mountain Lodge, Las Bromelias, and other forested sites on Rincon de la Vieja and Volcan Tenorio will put you in reach of Keel-billed Motmot. It never seems to be as common as Broad-billed and who knows how they partition habitat but these areas are the best place to find it. Except for around Arenal, these sites are also the place to find Tody Motmot, especially in moist forests on Rincon de la Vieja. It’s actually kind of common there! Listen and look for the Tody in the understory.

    I was very lucky to get super close looks and pictures of Keel-billed Motmot at Heliconias Lodge. Not so lucky with shots of Tody Motmot.

  • Riparian zones: All motmots seem to like riparian zones. Whether due to embankments that work well for nesting (they nest in tunnels), because there are bigger bugs in those places, or a combination of those factors, forested ravines and streams are often good places to find motmots.

I suppose the other key for seeing motmots in Costa Rica is looking for them right after dawn and at dusk, and knowing their songs. Motmots might show themselves in more open habitats at dawn and dusk but usually hide out in dark ravines at other times of the day.

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When we go on birding trips, I am pretty sure that we spend more time preparing for the trip than actually watching the birds when we get there. Seriously, how many of us birders study a new field guide for countless hours before we offically start the trip? How many hours do we spend planning the trip and salivating over sites? How often do we browse through photos and vocalizations on a birding app for Costa Rica? We look at those birds to learn their field marks, and read the text so often that we start seeing those feathered targets in our dreams.

“Whoah, there goes three giant umbrellabirds flying with vultures? Oh shoot, they don’t soar around with vultures…”, and when a bespectacled, bino sporting, smiling werewolf in tweed walks on past, darn (!), definitely just a dream! No matter how cool or crazy our pre-trip birding dreams may dare to be, they of course never compare to the real thing.

This Green Peafowl from Thailand could be a bird from a dream.

One of several birds that looks as if it comes from the land of birding dreams is the Ocellated Antbird. No small brown thing this one. It’s sort of like pumpkin orange with black and buff scale-patterned plumage, has a black face and throat, a tawny crown, and (get ready for this), a big blue face. Yep, not just an eyering but a whole, big blue face.

Oh yeah, Ocellated Antbird! I wasn't kidding about that blue face!

Despite its incredible appearance, this super cool Central American king of the antbirds is not too difficult to see when birding in Costa Rica. You go to the right places and can run into this gem on several occasions. You have to go to the right place of course, but bird enough at any lowland or foothill site on the Caribbean slope with good forest and you have a very good chance of focusing in on that exotic blue face. I was reminded of that while birding with Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann the other day. If you haven’t heard, these birding heros are birding their way from California down to Costa Rica and beyond and are seeing like almost everything! Check out the adventures at their Birds of Passage blog.

Birding Virgen del Socorro with Josh and Kathi.

We saw this female Orange-bellied Trogon along with several Blue and Gold Tanagers and other nice rainforest birds.

While birding near Albergue Socorro, a foothill site near Virgen del Socorro, we ran into a small antswarm with a couple Zeledon’s Antbirds, Spotted Barbtail, and a few other birds along with a few of our star species for the day, the Ocellated Antbird. We got lots of perfect looks, saw lots of vegetation moving instead of seeing them, and did not see or hear any much wanted Black-banded Woodcreepers. Josh and Kathi were mentioning that they had seen Ocellateds on several occasions in Costa Rica to the point of it being just about expected. I think this is because they have focused a lot of time and effort in quality rainforest but nevertheless, it shows that this fancy antbird is not all that tough to see if you go to the right places.

How an Ocellated Antbird is usually seen.

But watch long enough and they pop into view, sometimes with a weird bug in the bill.

They can also do some cool antswarm acrobatics.

Or attempt to hypnotize you with that funny face.

Those are places with lots of nice, intact Caribbean slope rainforest like Pocosol, El Tapir, Quebrada Gonzalez on occasion, Arenal, San Gerardo, and so on. I have had several so far this year but the ones near Virgen del Socorro were especially nice because one let me take its picture. Thanks, dreambird!

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admin on May 29th, 2014

We all have target birds whether we admit or not. You can be the most altruistic of Zen birders who insists that every bird is the same but when you open a field guide for the birds of Costa Rica, you have to admit a hidden, deep down desire to see certain species more than others. I mean, lets face it, someone who puts a House Wren into the same category as a Violet Sabrewing is probably a non-birding imposter.

House Wren- nice voice and friendly but....

just not the same as a big purple hummingbird.

Or, how about giving a super common Tropical Kingbird the same degree of importance as an Orange-collared Manakin?

The TK is alright but you will see a couple hundred.

You probably won't see as many of these!

Yeah right. Exactly. Some birdies just ain’t the same and that’s why we make statements about the bird of the day, trip, and year. It’s also why we have lists of target species. The Zen birder might say this with a steady calm voice that he or she doesn’t care which bird species they see on a birding trip to Costa Rica but they don’t tell you about that big, bold, booming inner voice that bellows, “I WANT TO SEE SOME COTINGAS DAMMIT. SUNBITTERN! UMBRELLABIRD, HOLY CRAP!”

The Sunbittern in particular is a much wanted species for anyone who hasn’t seen one. This is because the bird is unique, odd, and defies placement. It’s a genuine weirdo and that’s why we love it. Everything about it is different from everything you have ever seen, even if you are one of the lucky few to have watched its ancient closest cousin, the equally weird and awesome Kagu.

Despite its name, it’s not a bittern and doesn’t even come close to looking like one of those hefty, fat-necked, frog eating terrors of the marsh. The neck is sort of like a snake, the head is like a cross between a heron and a rail, the body is horizontal and sort of duck-like, and the legs are bright orange and like those of a heron. It also has a crazy sunburst pattern on each wing. Unlike the Kagu, the Sunbittern has a really big range (Central America to southern Amazonia), and loves to hang out along forested streams, rivers, and other wetlands. In Costa Rica, there are several places where they occur but they can still be tough to find because they blend in surprisingly well with their surroundings. If you can only check one section of a river, that also limits your chances of seeing one because it could be hanging out just around the next inaccessible bend.

Check out the snakey neck.

Last weekend, I visited La Marta Reserve with a friend of mine. I had heard that Sunbittern was pretty easy there but didn’t expect it to be foraging in the grass next to one of their camping areas!

A classic Sunbittern.

This Sunbittern was just doing its weird quick step walk around the grass as it foraged for grasshoppers and other choice insects. One of the guys who works there also told me that the bird is there just about every day so if you desperately need Sunbittern, make the trip to La Marta, and walk down to the camping spot that is closest to the river and next to a tiny pond with water hyacinth. A Sunbittern should show up sooner or later and then you can give the list a big fat target species check.


A frontal view.

Speaking of La Marta, this place also has a lot of potential for other species. During our short visit, we saw several tanagers (Tawny-crested is absurdly common), Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and a bunch of other foothill birds (elevation 800 meters).

A male Tawny-crested Tanager hides behind a leaf.

The main trails seemed to access old second growth but there could be quite a few species present because three sides of the reserve are adjacent to a huge area of beautiful primary forest.

Habitat at La Marta.

Checking out forest from an overlook.

The entrance fee was just $3, the trails were signed better than anywhere in Costa Rica, and basic, cheap lodging is also available. It looks like a place with a lot of potential and of course any day with a Sunbittern is a good one!

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