Categories
Birding Costa Rica Christmas Counts

Highlights and Impressions from Annual Bird Counts at Cano Negro and Arenal, 2019

The past week has been marked by bird counts, at least for us and the other 80 plus people that helped count birds at Cano Negro and Arenal. Since many of the counters and count organizers are busy with tours later on in December, these counts don’t fit into the official count time frame for the Audubon Christmas Counts and are thus not tabulated therein. However, that doesn’t minimize their importance, we still try to hold them around the same dates for each year and with the same routes and effort.

Pretty typical for December, this year’s counts were marked by the arrival of a cold front. It brought the expected buckets of rain and filled the wetlands of Cano Negro to the brink. As one might imagine, the heavy rains also presented challenges to watching birds but we still managed (yay for us participants!).

Some of the highlights and other impressions from this year’s annual bird counts for Cano Negro and Arenal:

You can still bird in the rain but it’s better when it stops

When birding in the rain, there’s a fine balance between getting too much rain and having just enough to boost the avian activity. Fortunately, it didn’t rain the entire time for either count! Although we did experience some heavy, prolonged falling water, we also had enough downtime from precipitation to count the birds.

Odd birds from the ocean

The good thing about a cold front is the birds that it can bring to town. That cool weather from the north can come with some surprises. At Cano Negro, they came in the form of a few Laughing Gulls, a Sandwich Tern, and two Brown Pelicans. Although we weren’t too far from marine environments, this inland freshwater wetland and refuge is still far enough from the ocean to make sightings of coastal species very unusual. I also checked the lake at Arenal but didn’t find any errant shearwaters or other similar oddities.

The new tower at Finca Luna Nueva

This recent excellent addition to Luna Nueva merits its own post and will get one at some point. During the count, we got a hint of what the birding can be like, I can’t wait to check it out during a sunnier, warmer dawn. On count day, the misty, rainy, and cool weather kept activity to a minimum. At other times, I bet it can be really good.

Both counts deliver the goods

Despite the tough weather, thanks to a good number of enthusiastic participants, we recorded most expected species at both counts. Our best birds at Cano Negro may have been the uncommon Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Bare-crowned Antbird, and Bronzy Hermit. At Arenal, these were probably Black-crested Coquette, Uniform Crake, Gray Catbird, Ovenbird, and a few other nice finds.

Best birds from 270 plus species at Cano Negro

It’s hard to decide which birds were the best finds for all routes combined but good contenders come in the form of Tiny Hawk, Northern Harrier, crakes, Pinnated Bittern, Snowy Cotinga, and a few others.

Best Birds from 350 plus species at Arenal

One of our best and most memorable birds was a displaying Sunbittern. Thanks to Beto Palma for sharing this picture.

Another tough call, but some of the rarer species recorded included Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Sharpbill, the super tough Lanceolated Monklet, Tody Motmot, two hawk-eagle species, and Ring-necked Duck among others.

Good birding in good company and bird education

As always, the top highlights from both counts come in the form of sharing these special days with fellow birders. Some of us are veterans of bird counts, others were watching and counting birds for the first time. Promotion of birding also happened this year by way of birding workshops that took place in local communities before each count. Our count fees also helped fund those endeavors.

Beto Palma took this picture of the count shirt.

The count shirt is pretty cool too! Many thanks goes to Diego Quesada, Jheudy Carballo, Anthony Arce, Luis Enrique of Bird Songs Bijagua, and other members of the count committee for making these important bird counts happen.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Christmas Counts Introduction

The 2014 Arenal Christmas Count

The first thing that comes to mind when I reminisce about the recent Arenal Christmas Count is rain. At this time of the year, cold fronts often come on down to Costa Rica. Unlike other visitors from the north, cold fronts aren’t so welcome because they bring constant rain. While the forests on the Caribbean slope do need tons of falling water (they really do), if you don’t happen to be an amphibian, constant rain is kind of annoying. It’s pretty self explanatory but to give an idea of what it’s like, imagine light rain followed by heavier rain followed by light rain and repeat that process for several days and nights.

Getting ready for the count!

Note the umbrella on the ground- a break in the weather.

Such very wet weather is par for the course in the Arenal area in December so we couldn’t have expected less. However, despite the precipitation, we still managed quite a few bird species on our Finca Luna Nueva route, mostly during times of light rain and breaks in the weather. Such breaks lifted our hearts and gave birth to sighs of relief until the pressure dropped and the rain fell again (along with our drowned, soggy hopes). Ok, enough complaints, now for some highlights!:

  • Birding with the guys from 10,000 Birds, Tomohide Cho, Ismael Torres, and Johan Weintz: Mike Bergin and Corey Finger a la 10,000 Birds were visiting Costa Rica and we did the Arenal count together. Lots of fun before, during, and after the count with these guys in our search for lifers and shelter from the rain. Tomohide takes lots of great pictures of birds, Ismael is the resident guide at Luna Nueva and Johan is a guide.birder from Cartago. This was our team and I am grateful for spending the day with them.

    Mike and Corey wading through yet another stream.
  • Cinnamon Woodpecker: First, we had one so close that it seemed like it wanted to help out with the count. Three or so more during the day showed that Luna Nueva is a good spot for this beautiful species.

    I want to count birds!
  • Great Curassow: Regular around Arenal and at Luna Nueva but always a highlight. Although we didn’t get the barred morph and honorary count bird at Luna Nueva, we did see one of those semi-psychadelic creatures at Arenal Observatory Lodge on the following day.

    This was the count mascot.

    This was the one we saw.
  • White-fronted Nunbird: Mike Bergin gets the prize for spotting this target! The quality forests around Arenal are good for this formerly common species but it’s still easy to miss.
  • Hooded Warbler: Uncommon in Costa Rica and a year bird so it was a highlight for me. We did not re-find the much rarer Nashville that Mike, Corey, and Ismael had seen the day before the count!
  • Keel-billed Motmot: We got one from the tower just before lunch! Great looks but too far for a good shot with my camera.

    View from the canopy tower.
  • Magnificent Frigatebird: Weird stuff goes on during cold fronts and this was one of them. Nope, not even near the coast and no other team happened to see this juvenile fly past during the count!
  • Song Wren: Another good one, we got looks up on the trails at the Texas A and M Soltis Center. We did super good for wrens before and after the count too, with 10 species seen and Plain Wren the only heard only (yes, great looks at the almost invisible Nightingale Wren at Arenal Observatory Lodge).

Big misses included Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, owls, and other birds that probably didn’t call because they were sick of the rain. I forget how many species we got but I think it was around 130 and that’s not bad, not bad at all for a day of birding!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Arenal Observatory Lodge

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.