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Horizontes- Good Birding in Guanacaste

Known for sun, beaches, and wide open vistas, Guanacaste is a popular tourist destination that encompasses the northwestern region of Costa Rica. Acting as the southern terminus for the tropical dry forest ecosystems of the Middle American Pacific slope,the lay of the land offers an appeasing blend of windswept fields dotted with octopi-like acacias, evergreen riparian zones that act as avian oases, patches of remnant dry forest, and rich wetlands.

The blend of easy birding and good tourism infrastructure makes northwestern Costa Rica an ideal part of the country to mix birding with a family visit. Those factors also make Guanacaste a good choice for local birders and even more so because the region offers high potential in Costa Rica for finding rare migrants. American Pipit has occurred as well as vagrant sparrows, wood-warblers, Aplomado Falcon, and even Gray Kingbird.

A few of the top sites for shorebirds are also in Guanacaste and since the region sees so little coverage for large areas of good habitat, who knows what else might be lurking along a dry creek bed or near some hidden pond? Maybe Costa Rica’s first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher? Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Maybe even a Burrowing Owl? Long shots for sure but they might honestly be out there and the best thing about looking for them is seeing hundreds of other bird species in the process.

This past weekend, while guiding the Birding Club of Costa Rica, I visited Horizontes, one of many sites in Guanacaste that sees little birding coverage. Although we didn’t find any crazy megas, both Robert Dean and I agreed that the site would be perfect for finding rarities during the height of the dry season as wetlands shrink and thus act as oases for birds. Even though we didn’t manage to add Lark Sparrow to our Costa Rica lists (a real mega around here), we were still very pleased with the overall birding at Horizontes and plan on making a return visit.

Horizontes is a large habitat restoration project just south of Santa Rosa National Park and based on the numbers of birds we saw, it seems to be working. These are some suggestions and remarks from birding there:

Several Key dry forest species are present, check out my eBird lists from my visit.
Although much of the forest is in varying degrees of second growth, there are some larger, older trees in a riparian zone and we had a very good assortment of dry forest species including uncommon species. Some of the highlights included-
Thicket Tinamou– common! Although in keeping with tinamou decorum, still tricky to see.
Double-striped Thick-Knee– we had a few.
Plain Chachalaca– we heard a few of this very uncommon species for Costa Rica.
Elegant Trogon– we heard a few.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper– we had a couple.
Northern Potoo– we did not see one but they are regular at this site, with a bit more time to work with I am sure we would have found one.
Western Tanager, White-lored Gnatcatcher and many other regular Guanacaste species were very common.

Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite– we saw a covey near the main buildings.
Yellow-naped Parrot– we had regular sightings of this endangered species.
Myiarchus flycatchers– these were especially common, in fact, along with the gnatcatcher, some of the most common birds heard and seen throughout the day. Great-crested were very common and an example of the important role reforestation projects can play to provide habitat for this and other boreal migrants.
Brown-crested and Nutting’s were also seen quite often.

Brown-crested

Nutting’s

Mangrove Cuckoo– we had beautiful looks at a couple of these cool birds.

Western Kingbird– an uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.

Bird the main roads
Although birding a trail or two is worth the effort, we had our best birding right along the main tracks through the reserve.

A White-necked Puffbird was nice as were close looks at a female Hook-billed Kite.

Check the lagoon especially during the dry season
We had fewer birds than hoped but still managed nice looks at Painted Bunting and an uncommon for Costa Rica Magnolia Warbler. Once the surrounding area dries out, this site would be a good one to check for much rarer species.

Stay there to save money or just visit as a day trip
The accommodations at Horizontes are basic but fine and clean and include rooms with bunk beds and fans (standard for a field station). The food was local fare and it was delicious!
However, it’s also just as easy to visit as a day trip from Liberia, Playa Hermosa, or other nearby beaches. The road in was also driveable even with a regular car (albeit with careful driving).

Keep an eye out for rare birds
Since few people bird at Horizontes and the site has potential for turning up rare species, it’s good to keep this in mind and be ready to take pictures of any unusual birds. We were told about a strange bird that has occurred there that sounded like it might be some owl species and maybe even a Great Horned (a real mega for Costa Rica).
However, despite visiting the site where it has showed both during the day and at night, we didn’t find anything different. I want to check again though…

Check other nearby sites for more species
Given the proximity of rice fields and other wetlands to Horizontes, it’s worth venturing outside the station to bird other sites. On an afternoon visit to the rice fields at Las Trancas, we did very well with excellent looks at Spotted Rails, Harriss’s Hawks, Northern Harrier, and many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

Hello rail!

Horizontes is easily visited as a day trip, all a birder has to do is drive in and pay the national park entrance fee. Meals and overnight stays would need to be arranged in advance but that should be easily done by contacting the station manager.

The best time to visit is during the dry season, note that some of the roads may be impassable during the wet season. Although Santa Rosa has better forest habitat, what we liked about Horizontes was the feeling that we were birding in an area with little coverage and high potential. If visiting Horizontes, please post your results to eBird and mention them in the comments for this post. Good birding in Costa Rica!

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Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica at Chomes and Ensenada

Costa Rica is so replete with birding hotspots, it can be a challenge to pick sites for a birding trip. If you have only a week or two to work with, you might be better off making a top ten target list and going from there. My Costa Rica bird finding e-book provides all the necessary information to plan and carry out a successful birding trip to Costa Rica, I often visit the sites mentioned in that 700 page publication, including last weekend while guiding a trip to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge.

Situated on the eastern shores of the Gulf of Nicoya north of Puntarenas, these sites and the general vicinity make for excellent birding grounds. The roads that lead to Chomes, Punta Morales, Abangares, and other settlements access a mix of riparian groves punctuated with massive old growth trees, open fields, second growth, patches of forest, and coastal habitats. As one might surmise, this translates to a healthy supply of dry forest species, shorebirds, and some aquatic birds. The size of the area and lack of birding coverage also adds excitement to every visit. Bird around there and who knows, you might come across an Aplomado Falcon (someone had one last month), find a roosting owl or two, wintering painted buntings, mangrove specialties, maybe even a Jabiru (one has been recently visiting a wetland just down the road from Ensenada).

It’ always a worthwhile area for exploration, but if you only have a couple days to work with, a birder can’t go wrong by sticking to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge. The road in to Chomes often has Harriss’s Hawk, Double-striped Thick-knee, and other dry forest species, whereas Ensenada offers up a nice mix of species associated with dry forest, mud flats, and open country. These are some of the highlights from this past weekend:

Cave Swallow!: November seems to be a good month to connect with this rare but regular migrant. We had one mixed in with several Barn Swallows perched on a wire just before the village of Chomes, and two days later, I also caught a glimpse of a probable Cave Swallow at Ensenada. It will be interesting to see if more show up a month from now in those same areas. On a side note, I was surprised to see how well the Cave Swallow blended in with the Barns. In substandard light and from the front, its orange-buff throat made it look much more like a Barn than I expected.

An excellent year bird!

Raptors: The 21 species of hawks, kites, falcons, and owls that we saw or heard show that the general area (especially Ensenada) is prime raptor habitat. Our best species were Crane Hawk (seen both days at Ensenada), Hook-billed Kite (a juvenile at Chomes and Ensenada), and Northern Harrier– a high flying rare migrant. Oddly, we did not have one of the more common raptors in that area- Roadside Hawk! That, or I can’t recall if we saw one because it’s a common, expected bird. In addition to Black Vulture, this is our list-

Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Hook-billed Kite
Northern Harrier
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Gray Hawk
Crane Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Common Black-Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon (heard only)
Laughing Falcon (also heard only)
Crested Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracara
Barn Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Pacific Screech-Owl
Mottled Owl (heard only)

One of the Hook-billed Kites we saw.

This and a second Zone-tailed Hawk entertained us at the salinas.

Common Black-Hawks are expected in coastal habitats.

Pacific Screech-Owl: This one deserves a second mention because it’s so common around Ensenada. I think I heard five from the lodge at night, and we saw two roosting birds right next to the restaurant during the day.

Hello owl!

Shorebirds: The shrimp and salt ponds in the area are important, excellent habitat for a variety of shorebirds. Although we didn’t see any Facebook breaking rarities, watching hundreds of Westerns, Semi Sands, Semi Plovers, Black-bellys, Wilson’s, Greater Legs, dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, and a handful of knots at Chomes is perpetually priceless. Seeing flocks take to the air at the sign of a juvenile Peregrine is even better! At Ensenada, we added Surfbird, Ruddy Turnstone, and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Yay shorebirds! 

Spot-breasted Orioles: Ensenada is indeed an excellent site for this uncommon species. Their cheery songs filled the air at dawn and we saw several right next to the lodge. In fact, the vicinity of the lodge seemed to be the best area for them.

One of the several Spot-breasteds we saw.

Ensenada Lodge: The lodge itself merits a mention. I truly enjoyed staying there; the cabins were clean, comfortable, and the fans worked to keep things cool. The food was delicious, the surroundings birdy, and a cute little porcupine waddles right through the restaurant every evening!

Can’t complain about the view either.

Breaking 700 for the year: As a personal highlight, this weekend helped me surpass 700 species for 2017. That came in the form of a single American Oystercatcher flying over the waters of the Gulf. 701 was the harrier that flew overhead. I really wanted to hit 700 in 2017, now that I have, I don’t have to worry about chasing a Blackpoll Warbler that was recently seen in San Jose.

If you visit Ensenada, please mention your best bird in the comments. This was our list from Saturday.