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Great Urban Birding at Villa San Ignacio, Costa Rica

Good birding in Costa Rica doesn’t require hours of bumpy rides and long, hot, triathalon training hikes. While the adventurous birder is welcome to burn calories and sweat buckets, excellent birding in Costa Rica can still be had with much less investment of time and effort. I am reminded of this benefit just about every time I go birding because although I do enjoy exploration that requires long hikes through tropical forest, most of my guiding and birding take place while driving and along very manageable trails. Part of that is because this makes for more feasible, easy guiding but honestly, if you know where and how to look for birds in Costa Rica, you can see a heck of a lot, even quite close to urban areas.

I hear this species from time to time right from the house.

As with birding anywhere, habitat is crucial and that’s why I bring birders to Villa San Ignacio. Most of the grounds feature large old trees (including bird-magnet fruiting figs) and regenerating moist forest that attract a good number of species found in dry and moist tropical forest. It’s a key place to see what much of the Central Valley used to look like and how some areas could eventually look if we just let it grow back.

Situated only 20 minutes from the airport, this hotel also works very well as a place to start and end a birding trip. Since the hotel is also at the edge of urbanization in the Central Valley, good birding can also be had on nearby roads. I was reminded of this during the past couple days of guiding at and near Villa San Ignacio. Some of what I saw and learned:

Productive birding at Villa San Ignacio

As is usually the case when birding in good habitat, the avian activity kept us busy. Red-crowned Ant-tanagers moved through dense second growth accompanied by a pair of Barred Antshrikes, Rufous-capped Warblers, Rufous-breasted Wren and other species. Cocoa Woodcreeper was a surprise and a reminder that Villa is a bit lower than San Jose and thus more biodiverse. Brown Jays screeched from the trees and revealed the presence of a juvenile Gray Hawk which then also began to scream. Back in the dense second growth, we had nice looks at Lesser Greenlet, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Streaked Flycatcher but the best was a female Long-tailed Manakin perched on a vine at close range.

I have seen males there on other days.

Plain-capped Starthroat and ground-sparrows

At the edge of the forest, we had excellent views of Plain-capped Starthroat and Blue-vented Hummingbird. On other visits, I have also had Cinnamon Hummingbird and Green-breasted Mango. We also had both ground-sparrows albeit with the briefest of views. The White-eared showed slightly better but the key endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow only revealed its presence with a few call notes followed by a quick flutter to skulk in thick grass.

Good birding on nearby roads

On roads near Villa, good birding is also possible, the main challenge is finding a place to pull off the road. Although that was generally impossible, we were able to stop on a quiet road that passed through a coffee farm with a scattering of trees. The birding was pretty good and I bet it can result in a lot more than we saw during our 30 minute stop. The quaint calls of Blue-vented Hummingbirds greeted us as we stepped out of the car. Shortly after, a flock of White-crowned Parrots flew into a nearby tree and I was surprised to hear the croaking notes of a Keel-billed Toucan. After a bit of maneuvering, there it was, a beautiful bird with a fancy multi-colored beak and within site of the urbanized valley. Not long after I was even more surprised to hear Fiery-billed Aracaris.

Although this regional endemic is more typical of the rainforests on the southern Pacific slope, small numbers also occur in the southern and western parts of the Central Valley (including Villas San Ignacio). After a bit of waiting, two of this exotic beauty fly into the bare tree that already featured the parrots. Our brief stop was rounded out by hearing the ticking call of another Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow and watching three Ferruginous-Pygmy-Owls at close range.

Turf farms

Unexciting to all but grass enthusiasts and birders hell bent on seeing grasspipers, the latter bit is why I was excited to learn about the presence of these farms. I need to be checking them soon, hopefully with my partner because Upland and Buff-breasteds will be flying back this way, some likely already are. There weren’t any sandpipers visible the other day but it was still good to know where we can look for them.

Birding in Costa Rica is best in places with the most complex, developed habitats (large areas of intact primary forest) but some urban areas can still host much more than you think. Villa San Ignacio is one of those places, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to learn more about birding and staying at this gem of site.

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Tips and Suggestions for Birding Lands in Love

This past Sunday, Mary and I had a chance to get in a morning of birding near Fortuna. Although we had the Observatory Lodge in mind, instead, we opted for another, lesser known site that we hadn’t visited for some time. Strategically located on a main route to the Central Valley from La Fortuna, Lands in Love makes for an easy stop with delicious vegan cuisine and great birding.

While birding the trails for a couple of hours, we identified 70 species, two of which were key year birds; Tawny-chested Flycatcher and Song Wren.

Lands in Love is a good site for these species as well as many others, the following are some tips and suggestions for birding this little known yet excellent site:

Bird from the Loveats Cafe

Lands in Love has a pleasant cafe on the main road. Drive the route between San Ramon and La Fortuna and occasional, interesting signs appear as the vehicle gets closer to great coffee, vegan Pad Thai and what is likely the best Shakshuka in Costa Rica. Even better, short fig trees next to the cafe attract honeycreepers and other small frugivorous species, and the vegetation out back is good for Black-throated Wren, wintering wood-warblers, and other birds. Sit at a table in the front, and the skies can host anything from Chestnut-collared Swifts to King Vulture and hawk-eagles. A birder might have to wait a while but the birds will eventually show. Cross the street and scan with a scope and White Hawk might be found along with other, much rarer species flying over or perched in the primary forest on a hill visible from the cafe.

Second Growth, then Primary Forest on the Trails

The trail system at Lands in Love includes several loops, most of which pass through primary rainforest that ranges between 600 and 400 meters elevation. Old second growth occurs at the beginning of most trails and offers up excellent birding including chances at actually seeing Thicket Antpitta, Black-crowned Antshrike, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, White-collared Manakin, and various other birds of the forest edge. It can be especially good for flycatchers including Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Northern Bentbill, Slate-headed Tody-Tyrant, and even the rare for Costa Rica, Sepia-capped Flycatcher. Pairs of the rare and near endemic Tawny-chested Flycatcher also occur here and there in areas of old second growth that have plenty of hanging vines.

Hummingbirds also feed on Heliconias including White-tipped Sicklebill, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and various forest species can also show.

In the primary forest, keep an eye out for mixed flocks with Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens. Various other species are also possible including Golden-crowned Spadebill, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, and Song Wren, Black-throated Trogon, and Rufous, Broad-billed and Keel-billed Motmots among others.

Antswarms

A birder would be fortunate indeed to run across an antswarm inside the forest at Lands in Love because this is the best way to connect with the rare Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. This species occurs at Lands in Love along with more expected Ocellated, Bicolored, and Spotted Antbirds.

Fruiting Trees

The canopy is high but if you find a fruiting tree, stay with it for a while. In addition to the three expected species of toucans, Yellow-eared Toucanet can also show and even Bare-necked Umbrellabird is possible (perhaps only from June to January). Various tanagers can also occur and fallen fruits might attract quail-doves. Olive-backed is the most likely species although Purplish-backed and even Violaceous are possible.

Trails too Rough? Bird the Forest on the Loop Road

The only downside to the trails is that they haven’t been maintained that much. This means that one or more of the bridges over creeks need to be replaced and that the trails themselves aren’t really suited for folks who have trouble with balance or walking. The upside is that a good number of species can be seen right along the loop road through the property and as the forest adjacent to the road continues to grow, the birding will only get better. In addition to edge species, many forest birds can also occur including antbirds, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, all three Cracids, and others. The loop road also has a few overlooks useful for checking the canopy and watching for raptors in flight. Not to mention, flowering bushes can also attract various hummingbirds, even Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, Blue-chested Hummingbird, and Blue-throated Goldentail!

Part of the loop road.

Other Species to Watch For

Lands in Love has a lot of potential for birding, including chances at many rare and uncommon species. Some of the birds to look for:

Cracids– Frequent at many sites in Costa Rica, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, and Gray-headed Chachalaca are present and often seen at Lands.

Raptors– Most of the rainforest raptors have been seen at Lands, the most frequent being King Vulture, White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. Semiplumbeous Hawk is also regular and both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles also make regular appearances. I suspect that Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle could also show from time to time and I have also seen Gray-headed and Hook-billed Kites. Perhaps scanning with a scope from the Loveats Cafe will eventually yield sightings of a distant Crested Eagle or Solitary Eagle? Lots of luck needed for those megas BUT both have occurred in the forest complex visible from the cafe. I can’t help but wonder if Crested Eagle might also pay a visit to the mostly inaccessible primary forests below the lodge.

On the falcon front, Laughing and Bat are regular, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon has been recorded in the forest and both Collared and Barred also occur.

Tawny-faced Quail– I don’t know if this rarity is present but I think there is a fair chance that it does live in the lower, mostly inaccessible forests. There may be a trail that reaches this most exciting part of the property.

Sunbittern and Green Ibis– Both of these choice birds can occur on the small bodies of water on the hotel grounds, the Sunbittern also along the river.

Owls and other Night Birds– Crested and Black-and-white have been seen near the restaurant and rooms, Mottled and Spectacled also probably occur somewhere on the property, and Middle American Screech-Owl likely occurs in the forest. As for other nocturnal species, Short-tailed Nighthawk can be seen at dusk and perhaps Great Potoo also occurs?

Motmots, puffbirds, and jacamars– This is an interesting site for motmots. Lesson’s has been recorded along the loop road, Broad-billed and Rufous are regular in the forest, and Keel-billed has also been seen perhaps more in the areas of second growth. The best puffbird on site is Lanceolated Monklet. Although it seems to not be as regular as in the past, it likely still occurs in and near the forested canyon. White-fronted Nunbird might also be present inside some parts of the primary forest, it would also be worth looking for the very rare Great Jacamar (Rufous-tailed is fairly common).

Black-crowned Antpitta– No sightings or sign of this mega that I know of (I have tried for it several times) but based on the elevation and habitat, it might be present perhaps in the lower more remote part of the forest.

Lovely Cotinga– Another one that could make an appearance, it will be most likely seen from the Loveats overlook. It seems that this rare species could also visit the forests around the hotel. If any cotingas are still present in the area, I would expect sightings from June to January when they are more likely to move to lower elevations.

Wrens– As with other foothill sites that have a blend of primary and secondary forest, Lands is a great place to see several species of wrens including White-breasted Wood-Wren, Bay, Black-throated, Stripe-breasted, Band-backed, Nightingale, and Song Wrens (along with House for the trip list).

Wood-Warblers and other migrants– Although migrant species can show up in all sorts of places, most really prefer quality forest habitats. This is probably the main reason why Lands seems to be such a good site for wintering wood-warblers including Kentucky, Hooded, Worm-eating, Golden-winged, and other species. I have also seen rare for Costa Rica Blue-headed Vireo there and it would be worth checking for Cerulean, thrushes, and other species during migration.

Stay the Night

If I had one final recommendation, it would be to stay the night at Lands in Love because the birding is good enough to merit more than just a morning. To learn more about stays and birding at Lands in Love, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com .