While checking the Pajareros bird forum, where rare bird sightings in Costa Rica get posted, I was blown away by the latest post (December 16, 2008). In that post are digiscoped images of Gray-bellied Goshawk (Accipiterpoliogaster) from La Selva. Although Costa Rica could still get some new species for the country list, this was one I never expected! This is a little-known South American species rarely seen even in its known range. Amongst neotropical ornithophiles and raptor lovers, it is most well known for exhibiting juvenile plumage that mimics adult Ornate Hawk Eagle. Check out the Pajareros post to see how incredibally similar it resembles Ornate Hawk Eagle. The main differences to separate it from the Hawk Eagle aside from size (the Hawk is smaller) are:
1. Structure- lack of pointed crest,
2. Black malar goes up to black crown behind the eye instead of going through the eye. I realize this sounds confusing- post mentions this and is apparent when comparing images of both species.
3. More spotted affect below rather than barred.
4. White edging to feathers on upperparts.
5. Bare thighs- often hard to see.
6. Juveniles often give a high-pitched call over and over.
Most of these marks are shown by the bird in the image which also resembles the only Gray-bellied Goshawk I have seen. That was a juvie. in Tambopata, Peru (Posada Amazonas) around the same time of year, 2004. This was a new species for that area as well. I especially recall the more spotted appearance of the underparts, white edging on the upperparts, black stripe on the face behind the eye and (like other juv. raptors) very easy to see. It sat all day at the top of the same tree ( conveniently near a canopy tower) and called over and over a short high-pitched descending call.
Gray-bellied Goshawk species is known to be a partial austral migrant; this juv. must have gotten lost somewhere between here and Argentina. Hard to say where it came from exactly; especially because this species is probably wider ranging than thought since neotropical forest Accipiters are very infrequently seen. It is interesting to note that the poster at the forum mentions that he saw one in the Darien, Panama. Who knows- it might even occur there or in the Choco (western Columbia and NW Ecuador) on a regular basis.
Hopefully this bird will stick around for the La Selva Christmas Count on Saturday!
During our recent first family trip to Tambor (see previous post for all logistics) I also got in a good amount of birding. To be accurate, it was “digiscoping”, not birding. Although the two endeavors are similar, they are not the same.
When “birding”, I concentrate on looking for, identifying and studying all birds in a given area.
When “digiscoping”, I also concentrate on looking for and identifying birds, but focus on certain species and lighting situations likely to result in better photos.
On this trip, I decided to focus entirely on digiscoping, even leaving my binos at home. Although the binos would have been far better for the ferry (where digiscoping was impossible but the birding good), I still did OK looking for birds with my scope.
On the 5 AM ferry to Paquera, we saw very few birds as it was too early. Even at the Guayaba island sea stack, there were few birds flying around while in the day they are quite active with Mag. Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies for the most part. It’s probably worth scoping this sea stack for rarities.
The ferry on the way back was when I missed my binos! Birds were fairly active under overcast skies that eventually spat down rain halfway through the trip. A scattering of Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans were present as we left the Paquera dock. The further out we went, I started seeing more and more Black Terns. Groups of 6 or so flew by the boat again and again until they turned into feeding flocks of dozens and dozens. It was at this point when I began to see a few other species too. A few Common terns were with them while an occasional Brown Booby flapped by. I managed to scope a Sooty Shearwater sharing a driftwood perch with a smaller Black Tern. My best bird was my only lifer of the trip and one I had hoped for; While scoping through the flocks of Black Terns, I got onto an all dark bird flying low over the water. I immediately knew that I had a Storm Petrel! The two most likely species in the Nicoya gulf are Black and Least. Although I couldn’t see the shape of the tail, this bird was smaller than the nearby Black Terns and flew with quick, snappy wing beats. Since Black SP is about about the same size as the Terns, I got my lifer LEAST STORM PETREL! -On a side note, lifers will from now on be given capital letter status.
A brief 5 second look of a small, all dark bird zipping by and no one on that ferry had any idea of what I had just personally accomplished- lifer number 2527 caught on the fly because I kept scoping the waves despite spitting rain and pitching boat. The bird had accomplished quite a feat too; migrating from a cluster of rocks off of southern California to Costa Rica, avoiding 1000s of voracious Gulls, Jaegers and who knows what else along the way. The Skutch and Stiles guide says that Least Storm Petrel is common in the Nicoya gulf. Well, maybe they are further out, but that is the only one I have ever seen after several ferry crossings.
At Tambor itself, (the village, not the big Barcelo resort), we stayed at Cabinas Bosque. Birding around the Cabinas was fair with good looks at Green-breasted Mangos. The Nicoya Peninsula is probably the best area for this species in CR. Most were staying high up, hawking for insects. Luckily, my wife spotted this juvenile which favored a low perch.
A Common Black Hawk hung out in the backyard.
As did the most common Woodpecker in CR; Hoffman’s. Yes, looks and sounds a lot like a Golden-fronted.
Spishing often brings in wintering Warblers. Northern Waterthrush is very common in wet lowland thickets and mangroves. Prothonotary Warblers are also very common in mangroves but I only got shots of this Waterthrush.
A good birding road and path is at the first right after the Cabinas Bosque, heading towards Paquera. Staying straight on the road will take you to a path that leads through mangroves and to the beach. I spent most of my time along this road with good results.
Beautiful Orange-fronted Parakeets were pretty common.
So were White-fronted Parrots like the one below although I couldn’t get a shot of one in good light. I also had Orange-chinned Parakeets, Red-lored Parrots and even heard Scarlet Macaw near the mangroves!
Dove diversity was especially high with 7 species recorded. Here is a pair of Common Ground Doves.
This was a good area to see common, second growth species such as Barred Antshrike.
White-tipped Dove quick stepping it across a road,
And witch-like Groove-billed Anis showing off.
Near the mangroves, I was surprised to get excellent looks at Mangrove Cuckoo!
and Northern Scrub Flycatcher- note the stubby bill.
Got nice looks at Green Kingfisher too.
At the lagoon near the beach, there were a few Herons such as this Little Blue.
Always nice to see Whimbrel; a common wintering shorebird in CR.
Other species recorded around Tambor were: Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green-backed Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Black and Turkey Vultures, Crested Caracara, Osprey, Roadside Hawk, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Wilson’s Plover, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged, Ruddy-ground and Mourning Doves, Pauraque, Cinnamon and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-headed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-Olive Fly., Common Tody Fly., Wood Peewee sp., Scissor-tailed Fly., Great-crested and Dusky-capped Flys., Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social Flys., Rose-throated Becard, Mangrove Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Barn Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Banded and House Wrens, Clay-colored Robin (not so common here!), Tenn., Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-grey, Palm and Summer Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Euphonia.
“Tambor” means drum. Here in Costa Rica, it also the name of a very tranquil, family friendly beach. At least that’s what the internet searches say. What they don’t tell you is that it’s almost too quiet. My wife, daughter and I recently made Tambor our first family destination and although we relished the tranquility, we also found ourselves hoping for a bit more. Although the information I found on the net was accurate in some ways, the personal perspective of someone who had traveled there was absent like humor at a funeral. In this post I will paint a detailed picture of a trip to Tambor by public transportation, my words revealing the bright spots and dim corners of the beach of the drum.
We left in the evening, taking a cab through almost 6 P.M. San Jose to the Puntarenas bus station. The streets were congested as always at this hour; not only with vehicles but pedestrians as well- well dressed office workers with their access badges tucked into their shirt pockets, workers sans dress codes always carrying day-packs, a few over-thin drug addicts here and there itching for mental relief, mothers with children, people laughing, talking and wishing they were already home and always the rumble of trucks, a blaring of horns and occasional sonic assaults from radios. Driving through this, you have to keep the doors locked and keep bags away from windows- some people will smash a window to snatch a bag. I feel like a bodyguard whenever we drive through the city- concentrating on my surroundings, ready to react, even more so with my daughter present.
I especially feel that way at the Puntarenas bus station. Located in southern San Jose, it’s not the type of area for night-strolling. Heck, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable during the day. Upon arrival at the station, panhandlers are there to open your door and ask for money. This time I told one grimy fellow that I was going to open the door before he could do it. He backed off right away and ended up being so respectful that I gave him something anyways. Inside the bus station, at least there is an armed guard and things are pretty darn orderly by Latin American standards. Upon purchase of a ticket, you are given a plastic boarding pass then “sit” in line. Yes, you sit in line; not on the floor but in chairs lined up in three rows. Once there you can watch TV or your fellow passengers until boarding (every 40 minutes from 6 until 9 at night for Puntarenas). We ended up heading out into the tropical night on the 6:40 PM bus, trusting our driver to navigate the twists and turns of mountain roads on our way down to the old port city of Puntarenas.
Miranda was good all the way down to the hot lowlands. Good means she didn’t scream for an extended period of time and of course she didn’t because we gave her food when hungry and held her the whole time. A lot of people tell us to not pick her up too much or she will want that all the time, that we will spoil her. I think they are absolutely wrong. I tend to base my perceptions within an evolutionary framework; especially when it comes to basic survival instincts. Regarding baby-carrying, I ask myself what it might have been like for our ancestors in good old dangerous Africa. Did folks casually stroll the savannah with their babies in plastic carriages? What happened to babies that were put down somewhere and didn’t cry? Answers to those are an obvious, “No” and the understatement, “nothing good”. Babies were carried around at all times for the sake of survival. In short, since we evolved to be carried around as babies (and this behavior appears to predate the Homo sapiens species) then it’s probably a darn good idea to continue with this behavior.
After around 2 and a half hours, we arrived in Puntarenas. Puntarenas is located along a promontary that juts into the Pacific. Because of the narrow, stretched out nature of this place, when you think you have arrived, you still have 10 minutes to go before the bus stops. This turned out to be a boon for us because we got the chance to talk with some friendly Canadian surfers who had useful info. about hotels and ferry times. They let us walk with them to the “Hotel Cabezas”. Three blocks north and one east of the terminal, they charged $25 for clean, basic rooms and were very friendly (so much so I had to say it twice). After a short but pleasant night, we cabbed it pre-dawn to the first ferry of the day. Dozens of people were hanging out at the Musmanni bakery where ferry tickets were sold. Most of these people ended up waiting for the following departure because the first one had already filled up with vehicles. After buying $2 tickets, we walked aboard and chugged out into the Gulf of Nicoya at 5 AM sharp.
I was concerned about windy weather making for a rough trip, but thankfully those fears were unfounded. There were very few waves despite a constant breeze strong enough to keep the flags taut and make us wear jackets. Miranda slept on while some 20 year olds drank beer and attempted to sing and “yee-haw” Mexican songs that people always sing when they are drunk (except my father-in-law; he karaokes those ditties sober as a baby). The 20 year olds weren’t about to win American Idol but I’m glad they were having a good time. Sometimes it’s great to see people enjoying life even if they are rending the air and assaulting the ears in the process. We also met a professional clown named, “Jesus”. I know that sounds like dreams after too much guacamole but it is the plain and simple truth. He wasn’t in costume, in fact I took him to be a surfer until we conversed. He was doing a clown gig for the weekend in Montezuma. And he was sad. No, not one of those “sad clowns”; he was real-life sad. My wife even saw him cry; crying because Miranda reminded him of his estranged 3 year old daughter. Poor guy, we could tell that he truly loved kids. Luckily he didn’t jump overboard into the Gulf of Nicoya on the way over; we are sure of that because we saw him walking away from the ferry with colored hoops and other clown-like accessories.
The sad clown from behind.
Miranda sleeping away the ferry ride.
The Puntarenas ferry drops you off near Paquera. As soon as you arrive, you know you have escaped the city. Its not just for the absence of traffic and buildings nor the surrounding hills covered in green jungle. It’s also the guy on a horse clopping by, the vendors who don’t even bother in attempting to sell you dried plantain chips, the hot, lazy air. We didn’t have to laze around the port though because a bus met our ferry (does it meet each one?- I think so). We hopped on with surfers, backpackers and locals and rumbled inland towards Tambor.
Tambor was about 1 hour drive through pastures and patches of forest. First we passed by the other Tambor that everyone talks about; the more well known Tambor-the Barcelo Tambor. This major resort is replete with golf course and a giant chess board (according to my father-in-law). It’s also beyond our budget and even worse, they make you wear a bracelet during your stay. If I ever by chance stay there I am going to hide my bracelet to see what happens; maybe you will read about me kung-fu fighting with the security. After the bracelet Barcelo and nearby airfield (yes you can fly there if you don’t want to meet any clowns or drunken people on the ferry) we were dropped off in Tambor center. This doesn’t sound as obvious as it might read; just a cluster of houses along the highway and a road off to the left going by a church. Yep, that’s Tambor, that’s just about everything as far as the town goes. This is one of these places where you really have to watch for a sign (which they luckily have). Hopping off the bus into the hot tropical sun, we walked over to the Cabinas Christina. We had read a lot about this place; nice cheap rooms, good restaurant, etc. We sat down and had much needed coffees (now addicted, what do you want- I live in Costa Rica) and then had a strange time finding out about room rates and availability. The lady in charge was vague about whether or not such and such room was available and kept stressing a more expensive room with cable TV. Even after I said that the TV didn’t matter and that we weren’t going to watch it, she just kept on about that darn TV. Maybe it was because the town has so little to do? In any case, I finally saw the room with the cable TV and realized why she stressed this amenity so much. The cable TV was pretty much the only amenity that $35 box with a bed had to offer. Not only did we need two beds, but my wife was feeling especially non-plussed with the odd behavior of these people so while we waited for the bill, I walked back up the road to the Cabinas Bosque. Unlike the Christina people, the Bosque gang were straighforward with the room price, it was cheaper ($24 with fan), nicer and they had vacancy. I ran back to the Christina, paid our bill and walked over to the Bosque where we established ourselves nicely.
Although we lacked the famed cable TV in our room, the Bosque offers this amenity in their more expensive room along with air for double the price. The Bosque was a nice place overall with fair birding and Howler Monkeys that came through the grounds every afternoon. We got pretty close to them!
Tambor beach was a ten minute walk from the hotel. Very quiet and with a wide stretch of sand, the water also looked pretty shallow. If you are looking for a tranquil, lonely beach lacking the glitz of over-developed areas, this one might be for you!
For eats, we saw one sketchy-looking restaurant with an unshaven drunken fellow stumbling around inside and a beautiful, expensive one. Yep, just those two options along the beach itself unless you catch and eat your own fish in the lagoon (something I plan on doing next time). In town there wasn’t much to choose from either. There was the internet-hyped Christina restaurant- we ate lunch there our first day. Sandwiches were good but absolutely no-frills and overpriced. We were also non-plussed by their menu that conveniently left out the taxes. In Costa Rica most places (and possibly by law) post their prices with taxes included. This is important when taxes are 23%. Outside of town along the main highway was a Trattoria. This looked very good and was run by an authentic Italian family . It was pricey too but looked worth it (unlike the Christina). There was a friendly soda just across the street from and to the right of the entrance to Tambor center. This place has no sign but looks like a typical small soda. The woman who runs the place was very friendly and talkative. Some of her family entertained Miranda while we ate. For that alone I would recommend this place over any other in Tambor. The dinner plate was pretty good too; I had breaded Mahi-Mahi with rice and beans, etc. for about $5. Two blocks further down the highway towards Paquera is another restaurant at the Coral Hotel. Very nice restaurant/bar; our waiter was very friendly and helpful. The food and drink were also good and moderately priced. If you go to Tambor, don’t bother with the Christina- eat and drink at this place. There was also a supermarket in town that had most of everything (closed on Sundays).
Tambor beach was pretty quiet and you might get bored but at least more touristy Montezuma is only a 30 minute bus ride away. The few days we spent were worth it and I hope to go back albeit with my own transportation to explore other beaches in the area. If you take the ferry, whatever you do, don’t put your feet in the seats!
This past weekend I co-guided the Bird Club of Costa Rica (BCCR) once again; this time at a lodge that sits at the foot of the most active volcano in Costa Rica- Volcan Arenal. Smoking and grumbling in the Caribbean slope foothills, Arenal is about 2 hours from Monteverde, nearly four hours drive from San Jose. On Saturday morning I did the drive with fellow BCCR members Johan and Ineke. It was one of those beautiful Saturday mornings when the beauty of the green mountains framed by blue skies makes you wish more than ever that you could fly just so you could get up there as quick as possible. Flying would leave out the narrow curvy roads too but since we never evolved wings, up we went twisting and turning through coffee plantations in a small burnt-orange Chevrolet. Traffic was light and the air scented by cloud forest remnants- a pleasant drive up and over the ridge of the Cordillera Central to descend once again past the La Paz waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.
This is a truly beautiful route and one that should be birded more (one of these days, I’m going to bird the forest remnants and tangled bamboo near Varablanca and post about it). We passed fruit stalls with golden pineapples and football-sized papayas, gardens glowing with purple bougainvilla and shining red Heliconias. When we turned left at San Miguel, the Caribbean lowland plain streched out below; all the way to forested hills on the Nicaraguan border. We drove through far too many cow pastures; lands at one time shaded by immense rain forest trees with 400 species of birds. Now, the pasture grasses and thick spiny growth support a handfull of species; Anis, Seedeaters and Red-winged Blackbirds in place of Antbirds, Forest Falcons and Umbrellabirds. On the way to Ciudad Quesada, I was gladdened to see some intact forest in hilly areas-probably a watershed. Hopefully I will continue to see it, maybe even bird it some day.
In Ciudad Quesada we stopped for a coffee at a small bakery called Pan de Leon. The true pizza aficionado I am, I tried their pizza- like most pizza here, it was strange but ok and nothing close to New York pizza (yes, I miss it!). We made it to La Fortuna not long after, softly cruising along smooth roads. This incredible lack of potholes was a pleasant and welcome surprise; potholes and broken pavement are standard aspects of central valley roads- some are so lunar that locals stick tires or trees in the deeper “calle” chasms. Eager to get to our destination, we buzzed through touristy La Fortuna. This place is over done with hotels and “cabinas”, most of which also over charge. We pondered over how strong the recession will hit local businesses, how many will have to close their doors and put up a closed indefinitely sign instead of one that reads no vacancy.
Not long after the Tabacon hot springs we saw the turn off for our lodge and traded the asphalt of the highway for the rocky, dusty road that led straight towards the volcano. Luckily we had good, dry weather because during heavy rains that road is probably a slick, muddy mess. It first passed through old orchards, then just after the entrance to the national park was flanked by old second growth. We stopped a few times and had several wintering warblers (Blue-winged being the best) along with different Wrens, Lesser Greenlet, Dusky Antbird, Great Antshrike and others- not bad for sunny midday weather. This road is probably very good in the early morning and late afternoon as the old second growth is connected to large areas of intact forest. Its probably good for night-birding too.
We stopped at a bridge with volcano in view and got nice looks at several species here such as Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and Thick billed Seed Finch (female below).
We were also entertained by Southern Rough-wing Swallows.
Further on we saw the “famous” Tucanes trail that we had never heard of. Apparently its good for seeing “the red hot lava”.
Opting for birds intead of glowing lava, we passed through the lodge checkpoint and headed up the hill to our destination.
The Arenal Observatory Lodge is not only aptly named with its perfect views of the volcano, but is also an excellent spot for birding. This was the view from our window. Although the top of the volcano is typically shrouded in clouds, some glowing red hot areas are usually visible at night and rocks are frequently heard tumbling down the mountainside. We saw lots of good birds from the balcony; Robert Dean, the illustrator for the latest Costa Rica field guide, saw Black Hawk Eagle from here before we arrived.
One of the best birds was Black-crested Coquette. This is the easiest site to see this species possibly anywhere- several females and occasional males were always in view feeding in the Verbena or Porterweed.
We also had nice looks at Violet-headed Hummingbird and this infrequent hummingbird species; a female Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.
One of the friendliest birds was this Broad-winged Hawk-Costa Rica’s most common winter raptor.
We got good looks at other common species such as Melodious Blackbird.
and uncommon species such as Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- here a female.
The deck by the restaurant was ok but could have been better if they had put out more fruit for the birds. Nevertheless, it still attracted a few species and had awesome views of the volcano.
Speaking of restaurants, I can’t say I recommend that of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The buffet breakfast was good but the rest was over-priced, boring dishes. Really, you are better off dining somewhere near Fortuna. That way, you can also bird the entrance road in the afternoon and look for night birds on the way back.
Although much of the vegetation at the lodge is non-native Eucalyptus and Caribbean pine, their trails mostly access native vegetation. The concrete trail behind our balconies looked promising; Robert has seen Thicket Antpitta here. The best trail might be the waterfall trail though. This trail accesses some beautiful middle elevation forest and has a bridge offering some canopy birding. After crossing the bridge, one reaches an open area with views of forested hills; the perfect situation to scan for Lovely Cotinga in the morning (which we didn’t see but does occur). Although we had a fairly quiet time along this trail, its probably worth a whole day as it likely holds middle elevation rarities such as Sharpbill, Black-headed Anthrush and much more. Some of the notable species we had were Crested Guan, Song Wren, Spotted Antbird and Olive-striped Flycatcher. At the entrance to the trail we had a brief flyby of a Yellow-eared Toucanet that was hanging out with a large group of Aracaris which was followed up by an even briefer flyby of what was almost certainly two Red-Shouldered Parrotlets!!
One of the coolest sightings was not a bird. See if you can find the Tigrillo or Oncilla that had been hanging around the waterfall trail. Raised by people and released here, it is far from afraid. In fact, you have to be careful it doesn’t jump on you! It was amazing to see one of these running around; very few people have seen this secretive species in the wild. Editor’s note- turns out that this cat was a Margay.
I would certainly recommend staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge whether you bird or not. For birders, the cabins sans volcano view are just as good, if not better (at least for birding) because they are closer to good habitat with a beautiful overlook that should be good for raptors and scanning the canopy for Cotingas, etc. Although the restaurant offerings need serious help, the trails are also good birding as is the entrance road (check the rivers for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger Heron); birding both areas should turn up a good variety of lowland and middle elevation species. This is a great place to bring non-birding family and friends too but make reservations at this justly popular spot. If you aren’t staying here, you can still bird the entrance road for free and can pay $4 to bird the trails at the lodge, which in my opinion is very much worth it.
This classic Costa Rican birding site became inaccessible after the earthquake on January 8, 2009. It is very likely that much of the habitat near the river was destroyed. Don’t make any plans to bird at Virgen del Socorro until further notice.
Last Saturday, I guided the BCCR trip to the classic middle elevation birding site of Virgen del Socorro. Even if we hadn’t gone birding, it would have been worth the curvy drive up the cordillera to escape the fumes and pot-holed asphalt of the central valley.
Our meeting place and time being the La Paz waterfall at 7 AM, we left at quarter to five from San Pablo de Heredia escaping the busy morning traffic just after the town of Barva de Heredia. The fresh, humid air of cloud forest remnants was a welcome change from the car exhaust of the valley. I hope to survey this underbirded road sometime as there are some nice forest remnants along streams with stands of Alder and bamboo. We had a date with middle elevation birds of the Caribbean slope though and so couldn’t stop.
After cresting the ridge of the cordillera at Varablanca near Poas volcano, we began our descent of the Caribbean slope. Although much of the roadside had been cleared, there were extensive areas of cloud forest nearby; some of which reached the road itself. After a steep, curvy section we made it to our meeting place; the bridge at the La Paz waterfall.
White-collared Swifts that roost behind the falls were zipping out of the spray in pairs while a Torrent Tyrannulet foraged on river boulders. Although we didn’t see any, this might be a good spot as well for White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts. About 5-10 minutes after the waterfall, we passed by Cinchona then drove at least a few more kilometers to the turn-off for Virgen del Socorro. Watch for the sign for this inconspicuous road that requires a 180 degree turn to the right to enter it.
The road descends to a river that cuts through a forested canyon. We slowly walked down the road while non-birding Fred graciously took both cars to the bridge at the bottom of the road and waited for us. Although it was fairly quiet (maybe time of year) we heard both species of large Toucan as well as the constant singing of one of the most common species here; Tropical Parula. Despite constantly whistling like Immaculate Antbird (another common species here) not a one answered. Collared Trogons were pretty common, feeding on roadside fig trees.
And Tufted Flycatchers were pretty common too- I at least got a good pic. of this friendly bird.
Some other birds we saw and heard on the way down to the bridge were: Smoky-Brown Woodpecker rattling away like a rusty machine gun, a Broad-winged Hawk (the most common hawk species in winter) hunting along the roadside, a few flybys of Brown-hooded Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, and a couple small mixed flocks with Slaty-capped Flycather (calling different from South-American Slaty-caps), Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, Wilsons Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler and Common Bush and Silver-throated Tans.
At the bridge, we enjoyed the peaceful rushing water and
watched Black Phoebes- a bird more tied to bridges than any troll.
We also had American Dipper here; an indicator of a healthy stream. Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron no doubt occur here as well although we didn’t see any this day. Venturing onto the trail into the forest just before the bridge on the right, I changed my tune from Immaculate Antbird to Lanceolated Monklet. This is a regular site for this rare species in Costa Rica that prefers stream banks in mossy foothill forest and is much easier to see in Ecuador and Peru. Like the hidden Immaculate Antbirds along the roadside, it also refused to repond. We did get lucky with a close view of Sooty-faced FInch, however; finally seeing one instead of hearing them call from dense undergrowth all morning. Shortly thereafter, we saw our bird of the day, a Nightjar!!
Roosting NIghtjars are tough. Books tend to show their best field marks in ideal conditions; just the type of situations in which one does not typically see them. We figured this was a female Chuck-wills-widow; probably a fairly common but little seen wintering species in Costa Rica. The head seems too big for Whip-poor-will, the tail too reddish, and most of all, the primaries too long. We couldn’t see the front or underside of the bird unfortunately and would like to hear from others about the ID of this bird. I hope it is a Chuck- I certainly put in my time for this species with all that whistling I did into the dark of southern summer nights in Illinois and Louisiana.
We didn’t see much of anything else on this trail but it looked promising for other rare species such as Scaled Antpitta, Green-fronted Lancebill and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them here in the past). When I bird this trail at dawn some lucky day, I will post about it.
After the trail, we walked up the road a bit on the other side of the bridge and ran into a few more birds. Although we didn’t hook up with a huge mixed flock that this road is noted for, we did alright with Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Fly, Golden-bellied Fly, nice looks at Bay Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and excellent looks at Slate-colored Grosbeak.
Although this area is usually good for raptor species including Solitary Eagle, we only saw Vultures up in the sky! The closest we got to a White Hawk (fairly common here) only turned out to be the distant glare of a palm frond!
After birding VIrgen del Socorro, we stopped at Cinchona for coffee and as per usual were rewarded with amazing, close looks at a variety of Hummingbirds and other species coming to the feeders. We even had a mixed flock pass near the balcony, best bird being Barred Becard.
This is one of the easiest places in CR to see Red-headed Barbet. Here is a female.
And this is the male.
Its also a good place to see Prong-billed Barbets at arms length.
Silver-throated Tanagers are always present.
and Baltimore Oioles are back.
See my posting on Cinchona for more photos, especially of Hummingbirds.
Luckily, the rain held off until we headed back up the mountain to Varablanca for lunch at Colberts- a French restaurant with excellent food (including home-baked goods!) that overlooks the Caribbean lowlands (where it is usually raining, so actually the view is mostly of clouds and mist). He has Hummingbird feeders as well with
Purple-throated Mountain Gem
and Volcano Hummingbird being the common species.
Overall, a good day, best done with one’s own vehicle although buses are available from both San Jose and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.
Costa Rica really is a birding paradise. At least five distinct bioregions and/or major habitat types are found within 2-3 hours drive of San Jose; all with fairly different sets of birds. It’s a good thing they are close to San Jose too because unfortunately, there’s not a huge number of species around here! Around here means where I live; Tibas. Tibas is like much of the central valley- urbanized, asphalted and missing the exuberant vegetation that used to be here. Lack of green space in the central valley is a topic I hope to cover on another day though because this post is the first of several about the common birds of Costa Rica.
The bird species in Tibas represent many of the first birds I saw in Costa Rica back in 1992 and will probably be some of the first species you see as well. Essentially garden and backyard birds of the central valley, they have adapted to living within a human dominated landscape. Although surely a far cry from the variety and types of species that inhabited the marshes and moist forest of pre-settlement times, there’s still some nice birds around. The common sparrow here is Rufous-collared Sparrow.
My first bird book was the Audubon guide to birds; Eastern Region. The fact that photos were used made amazing things such as Cerulean Warbler, Cedar Waxwing and Rails more credible. I first learned about Blue-Grey Tanagers on the glossy plates of that book; learned that in the U.S. they only occurred as an exotic escape in Florida. Here in Costa Rica, these natives are one of the most common bird species.
Possibly occupying a niche similar to that of Northern Cardinals, Greyish Saltators sing every morning from backyards throughout San Jose.
Doves are especially common. Although Rock Pigeons occur, White-winged and Inca Doves are the most common species.
Red-billed Pigeons can also be seen.
One of the coolest common species is Crimson-fronted Parakeet. Noisy flocks roost in the palms near our place and are often seen in flight within the city.
One of the most abundant birds is Great-tailed Grackle. They make a tremendous amount of noise in town plazas where they go to roost.
Conspicuous Flycatchers are always around such as
and Tropical Kingbird. If there is a neotropical trash bird, the TK is it.
Clay-colored Robin (the national bird of Costa Rica) is very common.
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is pretty much the de-facto Hummingbird of urban areas.
Some of the other bird species common in urban areas of the central valley for which I still lack images are: Black and Turkey Vultures- always up there soaring around.
Tropical Screech Owl- hope to get shots of the pair that roosts at the nearby Bougainvilla Hotel.
White-colloared and Vaux’s Swifts
Hoffman’s Woodpecker- very common
Blue and white Swallow- one of the most birds in San Jose
Brown Jay- seems to have declined with urbanized growth.
Wintering birds such as Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole and Tennessee Warbler
Although Costa Rica is always fun to visit, some months are better than others. Two months to avoid unless you absolutely adore buckets and bathtubs of rain are October and November. October is typically the worst month of the year for rain and I’m not talking about pleasant downpours ot cool you off. No, more like giant faucets in the sky left open for too long that will remind you of a story about Noah the animal lover. The rain itself isn’t so bad (although most locals, my wife included, seem to be afraid of getting wet), but the results are; annual flooding, landslides and closed roads. At least the rest of the year isn’t too bad and I still prefer all this water over a cold, snowy, breaking the ice off your car winter. The frequent rain can be tiresome though. It’s especially bad when a cold front from the north stews like an airborn whirlpool directly above the country. I witnessed one of those temporadas when it rained for nearly all of November, 1999. And I mean nearly all, not just a downpour or two rain each day. No, CONSTANT rain day and night; it just didn’t stop! It let up and now and then to mist but the water kept coming for nearly a month. It was driving me nuts! At least I could escape it by visiting the Pacific slope as the torrents from the sky were limited to the Caribbean slope. In general though, the worst flooding occurs on the Pacific slope. At this moment, much of Parrita near Quepos is under water as are several areas of Guanacaste. The nightly news shows scenes of flooding every along with other related stories such as; 3 people bit by snakes displaced by the rains, closed roads, and various accidents; the worst of which were some poor guy who died along the road up to Monteverde and a couple kids who were crushed by a falling wall while they slept).
No, October isn’t the best of times to visit Costa Rica. Don’t be fooled by cheap tour packages. I mean, you can still have a good trip but there is an excellent chance that you will have problems getting around and might not be able to visit sites on your itinerary so I think it is worth considering a visit at some other time of the year.
Here is a link to the Tico Times with english articles about Costa Rica, including the weather. This week’s edition shows someone wading through a flooded area near an oil palm plantation. Since terribly venemous Fer-de-Lance snakes thrive in oil palm plantations, you couldn’t pay me enough to wade through that water!
With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.
We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.
Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.
We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.
and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.
And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.
After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,
and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.
Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:
Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.
Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.
Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.
Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.
And here it is looking at us.
And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.
Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.
After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.
We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.
On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.
Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!
Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.
We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.
This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.
Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.
After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.
As odd as the title sounds, it’s pretty much close to the truth. I first noticed this phenomenon not long after moving here. With a lot of free time on my hands combined with the constant rains of October, I found myself taking in a huge amount of Costa Rican radio. Nestled within a good variety of radio stations were (are) at least three that play English language songs; mostly pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. On all three, songs by the Bee Gees make regular appearances; their distinctive, impossibly falsetto voices immediately recognizable. My formative years having been in the anti-disco 80s (we used to make fun of the Bee Gees and all things disco), I never paid any attention to music by those long-haired, bell-bottom wearing English/Australians. Thus biased against the Bee Gees, I thought, “how odd, the Bee Gees attained immortality by accident in Costa Rica”. I thought this, that is, until we visited my father-in-law for a party he was throwing. At first it seemed like one of those everyday parties with friends and some family where people eat grilled food, drink, laugh, reminisce and talk about old friends, etc. Well, it was that actually but what made this party extra special was the unveiling of the karaoke machine. Everything was normal until we suddenly heard the echoing voices of Paul and friends belting out Spanish soft rock songs in complement to what is probably best described as karaoke music. From what I heard, karaoke music is related to and might even be the same as elevator music, “musak” or the strange results of combining alcohol, a Casio and someone who thinks they are a musician. In other words, you sing along to tunes that are recognizable but sound like they are from a bad, surreal dream. And on my father-in-laws karaoke machine, you also get to watch a slide show of Japanese nature and villages. Things like Mount Fuji, rushing streams, a quaint waterwheel, and lots of flowers. All of these “wholesome” scenes are accompanied songs ranging from Frank Sinatra to Journey to those enduring pop stars in Costa Rica; the Bee Gees. Yes, some party guests even sang songs by the Bee Gees. Not “Staying Alive”, thank goodness, but other, slower songs such as, “How Deep is Your Love” or “Inside and Out”. Nor did they sing with high pitched voices which is unfortunate because that would have been absolutely hilarious. No matter; I was intrigued. I mean how can one not be intrigued by seeing beer drinking, fairly macho guys attempting to sing Bee Gee songs while watching a screen with “pleasant” post-card like scenes of nature; in Costa Rica of all places. It was at this time that I began to suspect that they weren’t playing the Bee Gees for nothing. Was it possible that Costa Rica actually liked the Bee Gees?!? That they listened to them on purpose? And better yet, if so why? How did thus happen? I asked Paul why they play so much Bee Gees and his answer says it all: “Ah yes, the Bee Gees! Very good music, a very good group.” Actually not all Costa Ricans are Bee Gee fans. No, its mostly 30 and 40 somethings that can’t get enough of those high-pitched voices but surprised I was and am. I had no idea just how international the Bee Gees were, nor that they actually composed some pretty good pop songs. The Bee Gees are actually one of the highest selling musical groups of all time! So, no wonder their music lives on in Costa Rica. Yes, I admit it; the Bee Gees make some good songs! Despite the strange falsetto voices from down under, many of their songs sound pretty nice. Although you won’t catch me doing any Bee Gee covers during rare karaoke sessions, I might stop the radio dial upon hearing the distinctive music of those three talented English/Australian brothers. “Night feeveeer. You know how to show it. Aaaaaah.”
The OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) station, “La Selva” is one of the most famous research centers for studying tropical ecosystems in the world. It is located near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui in the north Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica and protects 1,600 hectares (3,900 acres)of primary and secondary lowland forest. With so much of the lowlands already deforested and La Selva a 2 hour drive from San Jose, its lowland rain forests are also some of the most accessible in Costa Rica.
Being that it is a research station first, ecotourism site second, they charge an entrance fee that unfortunately isn’t as low as its elevation. It costs over $30 for a guided walk (guide necessary), more for overnight stays. At least early birding walks are offered and the guides are top notch. Meals are pretty costly though especially for being quite basic ($12 for lunch!). Most unfortunately, the rates are the same for Costa Rican residents. Since the average wage in Costa Ricais far less than wages of most visitors, guess who has little incentive to visit La Selva and learn about the wonders of the rain forest? Guess who is more likely to continue with beliefs that rain forest, although pretty useless, is for some weird reason valuable to rich foreigners? I am guessing and hoping that OTS probably has a community outreach program with free guided visits for local school groups. If they don’t, they better start since it is the local people who ultimately decide how natural resources are preserved, used, or obliterated.
Oh yes, since this post is supposed to be about birding the entrance road, though, I better start writing about that! If you don’t want to bird the reserve proper, people in the past have often had good birding along the access road. I visited the road for a few hours last week and the birding is not just good; it has improved! I saw more forest based species than in the past; especially in the vicinity of the stream crossing. Activity was good all morning (I recorded nearly 80 species) and I hope to get back there soon- not just because I love a morning of good birding but also because workers were building what looked like a kiosk just past the entrance to the road. I won’t be surprised at all if this structure ends up being something to control access to the entrance road itself which will probably mean goodbye to the good birding there unless you want to pay an exhorbitant entrance fee. I will keep readers posted about that. Meanwhile, enjoy these pics of the fine morning I had along the La Selva entrance road:
The view of a road with great tropical birding
Grey-capped Flycatchers are a common sight in the humid lowlands.
One usually sees Plain-brown Woodcreepers at antswarms. Woodcreepers are actually not that toigh to ID if you get a good look at the head. Note the straight bill and near lack of markings on Plain-brown. Got lucky with this at the stream crossing along with…
a beautiful Broad-billed Motmot,
and best of all, Rufous-winged Woodpecker!
The Woodpecker is a pretty uncommon sight. I also had flyover Double-toothed Kite, a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks and several Ospreys steadily flapping their way southeast towards the same place I would go for winter; the Caribbean.
Other highlights and interesting sightings were Pied Puffbird calling across from the bus stop, flyover Brown-hooded Parrots, good looks at lots of Yellow Tyrannulets, both Yellow-Olive and Yellow-Margined Flycatchers, Rufous-tailed Jacamar,
very close looks at Cinnamon Becard
and a big flock of both Oropendola species rummaging through and ravaging the bromeliads and foliage in their search for arthropodic delights.
Sightings weren’t just limited to birds; I also saw this Two-toed Sloth,