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Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Carara is Hot and Dry in April but the birding is still good

I guided some folks for a couple of days at Carara 2 weeks ago. As always, the birding was good; a walk in the forest near the HQ in the morning and a mangrove boat ride in the afternoon yielded 128 species. It sure was hot though; hot and dry! This is the end of the dry season in Costa Rica; the end of “summer’ for the locals. Although it hasn’t rained yet, it’s getting cloudier by the day and when those clouds burst, it’s gonna to be a daily rainfest. Shortly after the rains begin anew, Carara will green up again (and get flooded in parts). On April 10th, though, the leaves crackled under foot and the sun beat down mercilessly. At least it was cooler inside the forest.

I started the day at the bridge over the Tarcol River. Even at dawn, a few people were moving single file down the narrow sidewalk to get looks at the crocodiles. Later in the day, there is a constant crowd of people walking out to see those aquatic monsters. With the guardrails missing in places, it’s amazing that some unlucky drunk fellow hasn’t fallen over to be horrifically devoured. The crocs are certainly large enough to do it!

Scanning for birds, I saw several heron species, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt and a few groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. This is par for the course at the bridge. That particular dawn, I also saw 100s of Baltimore Orioles flying from their roosts towards the forests of Carara, along with many Barn Swallows and common open country stuff like Melodious Blackbird, Kiskadees, White-winged Doves, etc.

Melodious Blackbird has firmly established itself in Costa Rica.

Since taxis and buses were absent on Good Friday, I walked the 3 or 4 kilometers to the entrance. It was a nice morning walk actually with lots of bird activity along the way including Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendola; uncommon species for Carara.

The parking lot at HQ is a great place to see common species such as Rose-throated Becard. This is a female; in my opinion better looking than the male in Costa Rica. Although in Mexico, the bird truly has a rose-colored throat, here in Costa Rica, the male is all dark. In the same tree, I had Violaceous Trogon, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Yellow-throated Euphonia while a Northern Waterthrush was yearning for water at the edge of the parking lot.

Philadelphia Vireo- one of the most common wintering birds around Carara.

We entered the Universal Trail (named as such because it is handicap accessible) and slowly made our way through the drier secondary growth. We saw lots more Becards, Common Tody, Streaked and Piratic Flycatchers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Trogon and other common species. We also had great studies of Greenish Elaenia and Yellow-Olive Flycatchers- both common birds of Carara.

Just as we reached the primary forest, we had good looks at a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons as a Jacamar called in the distance. Our walk through the primary forest was quite productive, especially for flycatchers. Overall it was a great day for flycatchers with 25 species by dusk! In various mixed flocks typical for Carara, we had Cocoa and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Russet Antshrike (just one shy bird), Ruddy-tailed, Sulphur-rumped, Ochre-bellied, Yellow-bellied and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Lesser and Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1 Tropical Parula, gorgeous Bay-headed Tanagers and White-shouldered and Summer Tanagers.

An amazing sight; a Lesser Greenlet staying still!!

Outside of mixed flocks we did alright too with Purple-crowned Fairy, Steely-vented Hummingbird, excellent looks at feeding Brown-hooded Parrots, Baird’s Trogon (had to work for that one), a few White-whiskered Puffbirds, Chestnut-backed Antbird, both Spadebill species, Royal Flycatcher building a nest, lots of Northern Bentbills, and excellent looks at Spot-crowned Euphonia.

Northern Bentbill

male Spot-crowned Euphonia

Manakins seemed to be absent and I’m not sure where the Wrens, Black-faced Antthrush and Antpitta were hiding but it was a good four hours of birding nonetheless. We lunched at the closest, nicest place; Villa Lapas.

Villa Lapas is pricey but has good accommodations, service and restaurant. The grounds are also pretty birdy and they have a bridge/canopy walkway.

During lunch, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron worked the stream,

and a pair of Green Kingfishers entertained.

After lunch and a short rest, we were off to the mangrove birding tour. As in some other tourist frequented sites, around Carara, the taxis were charging a mint to get around; $10 for the short drive between Villa Lapas and the Carara HQ and $50 round trip to the mangrove birding tour. The regular price for a taxi in Costa Rica for the same distances should be at the most $4 and $24 respectively. Yet another reason to rent a car.

Anyways, at the boat dock we started seeing new birds straightaway; Amazon Kingfisher perched on the dock, our first of many Common Black Hawks, Anhinga and various herons. As the boat departed, a Zone-tailed Hawk swiftly soared across the river mouth and Black-necked Stilts became visible. During the boat trip, the pair of Mangrove Swallows that nest in a box in the boat accompanied us. Despite the high tide (not ideal for birding), we identified 77 species.

After checking the river mouth, we went up a channel through tall mangroves. As with any mangrove boat trip I have done, the mangroves are tall and it’s a cool habitat but the birds are pretty scarce. We saw a few herons and got nice looks at Ringed Kingfisher then picked up Common Ground Dove (which was interesting because there wasn’t any dry ground) and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The Peppershrike was a nice surprise. This widespread neotropical species is rather uncommon in Costa Rica and mostly found in underbirded areas such as the Central Valley and mangroves. After the Peppershrike excitement, we investigated a smaller mangrove channel and stopped to play tape of various species. Although we didn’t get any responses from the Wood-rail or Woodcreepers, we got nice looks at Panama Flycatcher and Common Black Hawks and one of our group almost certainly saw Mangrove Hummingbird.

Back out in the main channel, we taped in one of the common mangrove specialties; Mangrove Vireo then headed upriver. With the sun to our backs, we had beautiful looks at any birds that flew in front of us. One of the best was a quick flyby of Crane Hawk, its redddish legs standing out in the sun. We also had many Red-billed Pigeons and started to get parrot flybys as the afternoon progressed. We had a few macaws although Red-lored and Mealy Parrots were the most frequent parrot species. A green field was filled with Barn, Southern Rough-winged and a few Cliff Swallows while Costa-rican Swifts fed low over the water. One of our best birds was Double-striped Thick-knee; a pair lounging in a sparsely vegetated rocky area with half buried tires and other pieces of trash. This noctural shorebird of dry fields occurs in the extensive pastures visible from the bridge but is tough to see away from the boat tour.

Somewhere out there is a Double-striped Thick-knee, a bird that by name and appearance belongs in a Roald Dahl story.

Whimbrels were common. We also saw loads of Spotted Sandpipers, several Willets and Ruddy Turnstones.

We ended the tour with a beautiful sunset, Lesser Nighthawks feeding near the river mouth and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls calling near the dock for yet another great day of birding around Carara National Park.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

The Carara Christmas Count, Costa Rica

Like most bird counts, Christmas counts included, Dieter Holdt and I started the day so darn early that it was the middle of the night. This strange behavior is fairly typical of birders on count days. Be it a Big Day, Bird Race or Christmas Count, the more gung-ho (read psycho) birders take advantage of the midnight start time to listen for Nightjars, Owls, Rails and maybe disturb some poor sleeping bird with a bright light and excited whispers. In our case, we weren’t even looking for birds; we had to meet other Carara Christmas Counters at 4:30 A.M. Since we both live in the Central Valley, this meant a 2 hour drive down to the Pacific coast. At least night driving in Costa Rica is maybe 1,000 times better than during the day. Although drunk drivers might be a significant factor (and we saw one), traffic is more or less non-existent. This is in extreme contrast to day driving when the roads are clogged with honking cars, motorcycles zipping by and slow, behemoth trucks that reduce your average speed to about 20 miles per hour.

On the night of the count, driving was particularly nice with a full moon lighting up the roadways and painting the jade vegetation silver as we twisted and turned past the towns of Atenas and San Mateo. At one point we actually did look for a bird. This was in Orotina where a resident pair of Black and White Owls amazingly resides in the central plaza. During our plaza drive-by, though, Owls were replaced by a few drunken night people. Continuing on, before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination an hour before the meeting time- on a side note, if you drive at night in Costa Rica, you can probably cut off at least a third of your driving time.

We rested in the car for close to an hour until fellow counters arrived. After meeting up with the two other members of our group and getting our boxed (plastic bagged) lunches, we drove to our morning territory; the river or Vigilancia Trail. This trail/road/rainy-season mud-bath, accesses gallery forest, second growth, an oxbow lake before eventually reaching upland, primary rain forest. The variety of habitats combined with accessibility and ease of walking make it one of the best birding spots in Central America. It is one of those places where the birding seems to always be good and our day was no exception.

Our first species were typical of the pre-dawn lowland rain forest chorus; Pauraque from a nearby clearing, a mournful Collared Forest Forest-Falcon and Woodcreepers trilling and whistling into the dusky air. As we slowly made our way to our first and principal stop on the trail, other species were added to the list one after another, all by their vocalizations; Great and Little Tinamous, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Pale-billed Woodpeckers double-knocking, Mealy Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets overhead, Spectacled Antpitta, Black-faced Anthrush, Chestnut-backed and Dusky Antbirds, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes, several Flycatchers, Grey-headed Tanagers and so on.

Dieter, Maria and Nestor looking for birds.

Our main stop was the best Christmas tree a birder could ask for;  an immense fig tree in fruit.  Adorned with palatable ornaments of its own device, it was busy with over 20 species of birds.  The umbrella-like crown of the tree was so high up that we found birds by scanning with our binoculars. You could look with bins at almost any part of the tree and pick out at least one bird perched or feeding. Watching this incredible tree was surreal; three Trogon species looked as if they were in a feeding frenzy as they flew back and forth beneath the umbrella-like canopy, Kiskadees called and sallied for figs, even a few Long-tailed Manakins appeared now and then to snatch a fig. The strangest bird of all was a Band-tailed Pigeon, a species typically found at much higher elevations. Although we did not see the Turquoise and Yellow-billed Cotingas we had hoped for, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two had shown up and we just missed them because the tree was so big.

Looking up into the amazing fig; I am the one styling with boots with shorts.

After a couple of hours at the fig we noticed fewer fruits and fewer birds and so continued on down the trail trying to keep track of the birds we were constantly hearing and seeing. We picked up Ruddy Quail Dove (always a good spot for this terrestrial species), Gray-fronted Dove, flyby Wood Storks and a Great Blue Heron, Blue-throated Goldentail, Purple-crowned Fairy, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and so on. Some of the more common species were Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Orange-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, and several Wren species. Carara is a great example of Wren diversity by the way. We saw 7 species along that trail, most common being Black-bellied, Rufous and White and Riverside.

Eventually we reached the oxbow lake. This was the perfect spot for a mid-morning rest.

We watched  a few crocodiles

and counted various widespread waterbirds including 4 Black-necked Stilts and several Boat-billed Herons that roosted in nearby trees. We also picked up Prothonotary Warbler and Ringed and Green Kingfishers. A bit further on was beautiful upland primary forest. We heard a few Rufous Pihas there and saw more of the same. Being midday, it was pretty quiet in the upland forest. If you are there at dawn, I am sure it is a whole other matter.

At that time, we made our way back up the trail, hanging out at the fig tree to get better looks at Long-tailed Manakin and hope for Cotingas. Although no Cotingas showed, we picked up one of our target birds along the way; Royal Flycatcher. This trail is a very reliable spot for this species.

We munched our bagged lunches of bread, cheese, fruit and crackers and wished we had slept longer the night before even though that would have broken the big day and Christmas count traditions of feeling exhausted most of the time. Since one of our count group forgot his bagged lunch, we drove to the nearby Guacimo soda so he could refuel. This was about 5 minutes from the Tarcol bridge, on the right side of the highway heading towards San Jose. The change in habitats is amazing; as soon as you cross the bridge, you enter into drier habitat which holds many species not found in the humid forests of Carara. The Guacimo had a nice overlook and we picked up a few new birds here.

Guacimo overlook.

From the soda, we continued up the highway towards San Jose taking a right at the next intersection for our afternoon territory. This area is called Sandillal and accesses much drier, grassy fields, and good moist forest before reaching the Tarcol river. We continued to get new species along this road. Best were Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendolas (both uncommon birds around Carara) and Gray-headed Kite. We also had excellent Hummingbird activity at flowering Ingas. Dozens of Hummingbirds of 8 species were buzzing around these trees. The most common Hummingbird species on the dry side of the bridge were Steely-vented, Green-breasted Mango, Ruby-throated and Rufous-tailed. Our best Hummingbird species were White-necked Jacobin and Plain-capped Starthroat.

Down at the river we picked up a Snowy Egret and Gray Hawk but not much else so we sped over to the Tarcol river bridge hoping for flyovers of something new.

The Tarcol bridge.

We saw a few Macaws in the distance but very little flying over the bridge itself. Nevertheless, we managed to scope a distant Common Black Hawk, get our Spotted Sandpiper, and our only Cherries Tanagers and Grayish Saltators. By this time, it was 5 PM and we were more than exhausted enough to call it a day. We headed back to our lodging (dormitories in the park) and rested up before driving over to dinner provided by the Crocodile tour. This is another nice thing about some of these Costa Rican Christmas counts; the organizers do an excellent job of not only planning out routes but also getting local businesses involved to the point of providing food and a tee-shirt.

At dinner we caught up with other counters and found out that our team probably got the highest species total with 151 species. This is also the most I have recorded in one day in Costa Rica; a total I hope to soundly top with a Big Day possibly in 2009. Although our Yellow-billed Cotinga never showed at the amazing fruiting fig, another team got one female in the mangroves. The mangrove team also got the best bird; Nashville Warbler! A common species further north, this is a very rare vagrant in Costa Rica. Although the photos weren’t the best, they looked pretty convincing as were their descriptions. I think its no wonder this bird showed up in mangroves since a migrant at the periphery of its range is likely to be a juvenile that ends up using substandard habitat; mangroves being substandard for many Warbler species. I am still waiting for the final total for all teams but expect it to get close to or top 300 species as several shorebirds were recorded and a variety of cloud forest species from higher elevations that fell into the count circle.

After a night of much needed rest, Dieter and I birded the primary forest of Carara. This forest is just fantastic; giant trees that soar above a thin understory making it easy to see understory birds, clear streams, and of course lots of good birding. Over the course of an hour on the trails, some of the better species we saw (and typical of Carara)  were: a few Crested Guans, Scarlet Macaws, White-necked Puffbird, Spectacled Antpitta (possibly the easiest spot to see this species), Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a likely lump with Spot-throated Woodcreeper), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Rufous Piha.

After excellent forest birding, we drove to Tarcoles in search of wetlands and associated bird species. Along the road into Tarcoles, we had close looks at a pair of Yellow-naped Parrots and eventually found our waterbirds somewhere between Tarcol village and the Crocodile tour. The birds were in the flooded portion of someone’s backyard and this temporary pond must have been filled with aquatic goodies because there were..

at least a dozen White Ibis,

Wood Storks,

Great Egrets,

and Bare-throated Tiger Herons.

Further on, we took a left near the crocodile tour to head towards the beach. This section of road passes through more wetlands and mangroves before reaching the beach. We saw little in the wetlands and mangroves but had several new species on the beach such as hunting Ospreys, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, and many Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There were also a good number of birds perched on sandbars at the mouth of the Tarcol river. Unfortunately, we couldn’t check them out because it was time for us to head back to San Jose and we still wanted to stop in Orotina.

The beach near Tarcoles.

At Orotina, we walked through the plaza checking the trees for the local Black and White Owls. As per usual, the plaza was busy with all sorts of people and as on other occasions, I could not find the Owls until the local ice cream vendor pointed them out. On this day, we only saw one of the Owls and it was roosting in a fairly open tree at the edge of the park. If the ice-cream guy isn’t there, check for white-wash as there was plenty under the owl’s perch on that day.

With Black and White Owl under our belts and 168 other species in just a bit more than  one day of birding, we felt more than satisfied as we drove back up to the White-winged Doves and Tropical Kingbirds of the central valley. As always, I can’t wait to get back to Carara.