Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope common birds Introduction

Tales of Birding Costa Rica: My first Grey-necked Wood-Rail

For birders from the north, the Grey-necked Wood-Rail is an anomaly. It doesn’t skulk all day in marshes, nor does it demand that you stumble around in the dark of the night to see it. None of that wandering around and playing tapes, making clumsy imitations, or donating blood to the local mosquito population in quantities that would have earned you a plaque of distinction from the local Red Cross.

No dragging a chain through marsh grass, waltzing and swearing your way through cold, Spring sedge marshes, or engaging in other extreme birding behavior.

No, you don’t need to do any of this to see a Grey-necked Wood-Rail. They don’t even live in marshes. It seems that as long as there is a stream, pond, ditch, or wet area with woody vegetation, there is a wood-rail somewhere nearby. I will even go so far as to say that they are downright common from the lowlands up to just below cloud forest. Not only that, but THESE RAILS ARE AS BIG AS CHICKENS and are kind of fancy looking. You can be assured of the chicken-size comparison because a few weeks ago, a client and I actually saw one feeding WITH chickens around some garbage in the village of Tarcoles (which is probably a clue to why they are so common).

Although they stick to the rail motto of being furtive, I still see them just about every time I go birding. A typical sighting is of a chicken-sized bird with long, red legs running away through the undergrowth.

They are also very vocal– I hear a pair calling at dawn from a forested ravine not too far from the house. Garrigues and Dean in their excellent “Birds of Costa Rica” describe the song as “bringing to mind a group of drunken chickens”. Although I have never listened to any inebriated chickens or wild junglefowl (oh yeah, I am proud to have seen wild chickens in Thailand) that I am aware of, I am pretty sure that this is a perfect description. This song gave rise to one of the local names for this bird, “Ponay, Ponay” (pronounced like Monet or a horribly exaggerated, aristocratic version of “poney”).

I learned about the local name when I saw my first Grey-necked Wood-Rail. It was 1994 and my second trip to Costa Rica. After my first visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the birding in Costa Rica. It was exciting, it was fantastic, and it was frustrating. There were all of these birds that I didn’t see that were supposedly common; like antbirds, antpittas, and the Grey-necked Wood-Rail. I was in their habitat (or so I thought), so where were the birds? Oh, there were birds and plenty of great ones like White Hawk, White-necked Jacobin, and Great Tinamou, but I wondered why I had missed other species. I was absolutely intrigued by the wonders and complexities of neotropical birding and so as soon as the Spring semester was over, I went back to Costa Rica for a month. I paid more attention to the behaviors of birds on that second trip, tried to figure out how to find them, and learned how to see more birds in tropical forest (Several years later, I am still learn something new every time I go birding). I learned a lot on my own but there were people who helped. One of those people on that second trip was a park ranger in Braulio Carrillo named, “Santos Ezeta”.

I heard about Santos after asking the rangers at Quebrada Gonzalez about things like umbrellabirds and hawk-eagles. They told me that Santos was the guy to speak with, that he was really into birding. They also told me that I should go visit him at the “El Ceibo” ranger station on the other side of the park, that I could probably stay there, and that it was the best place to see Great Green Macaws. It was a similar elevation to Quebrada Gonzalez and so probably had similar birds, but it sounded promising, so with the hand-drawn map they had given me, I off to El Ceibo.

It would have been complicated to get there even if I would have had a four-wheel drive vehicle. Without a car, it was one of those adventurous treks that test the body and mind. The distance was maybe ten kilometers (?) from where the bus made its final stop near La Virgen de Sarapiqui. What really made it a trying experience, though, was carrying a back pack beneath the tropical sun along stony roads that crawled through shadeless cattle pastures. As I trudged along, my eyes stung with sweat while cows “mood” at me and meadowlarks sang from so much land that used to be covered in fantastic rainforest.

The area was and still is little birded. Despite the ridiculous amount of sweating I was doing and depressing deforestation, the prospect of unexplored territory made the walk an exciting one. I picked up my lifer Grey-headed Chachalaca, was serenaded by toucans that called from huge, isolated trees standing forlorn in the pastures, and saw at least a dozen Great Green Macaws. They were flying around, feeding, and (as macaws love to do) screaming their heads off.

Upon arrival at the station, I met Santos and his family. He was like many Ticos one meets in the country; lean, mustached, and friendly. He lived there with his young wife and four-year old son, had few visitors, and didn’t get the chance to speak much about birds with anyone. This was evident because when I showed up he sure had plenty to say.

We talked birds for hours and I learned about Bat Falcons sometimes seen in the trees in the pastures, about the Great Green Macaws seen during the wet season (they flew right over the station- it was incredible), about the White Hawk that hunted for Marine Toads at the forest edge, about fantastic mixed flocks that could be seen from the porch of the station, and about a strange bird he called the “Ponay Ponay”.  He said it was a ground bird with red legs, a strange call, and something he rarely saw. Until he showed me a picture of a wood-rail in the book, I had no idea what it might be. Not knowing that wood-rails can often be seen when walking near streams in the early morning or evening, and thinking that like other rails I knew, I would have to play a tape, we walked near the forest edge to call in the Ponay Ponay with my cassette player (nope, no Ipods. Heck, there wasn’t even the internet in 94).

I played the tape of its rollicking call and the results were nearly immediate. Suddenly appearing out of the dim forest understory was a nervous chicken-like bird with bright red legs. It twitched its tuft of a tail, stretched its neck and seemed to stand on its long toes as it called back at us. Although he had seen them before, Santos was just as excited as I was to see this bizarre-looking forest bird with the red legs. It was my lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail and like all of my life birds I can still see it standing at the edge of the rainforest as it looks back and forth a few times before hunching down and running back into the gloom. That mental snapshot also includes Santos. He is smiling and laughing and his eyes are shining with that shared birding moment.

I picked up other lifers those few days at El Ceibo and the birding was fantastic. We watched huge mixed flocks of tanagers and other birds troop along the forest edge near the station. We watched raptors soar over the canopy of the forest. Macaws entertained us every morning and evening. We also crossed the river on a small, cable-car contraption to explore the forest on the other side and found that a Puma was using one of the shelters along the transect trail. We didn’t see the cat but found its tracks and the remains of several Great Tinamous. I picked up several other lifers including my first Yellow-eared Toucanet (a male picking berries off some Melastome near the station) and Barred Forest-Falcon (a juvenile perched above the trail).

El Ceibo was great for birding on its own but sharing its birds with Santos made it one of he more memorable places I have birded in Costa Rica. If I ever get a four-wheel drive vehicle, I hope to get back there sometime although I know it won’t be the same. When I came back to Costa Rica a year and a half later, like always, I visited Quebrada Gonzalez on my first morning. After getting reacquainted with those beautiful woods, I asked one of the rangers about Santos, if he still worked a El Ceibo.

Sometimes when someone tells you something unexpected in a language that you are still learning, you doubt what you heard because you wonder if you misunderstood (it was like that on 9/11 when I was in Peru and we heard about the attacks over a not too clear radio deep in the jungle). Speaking with the ranger at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of those times. I apologized and had to ask him a couple of times to repeat what he had said to make sure I heard correctly because I didn’t want to believe it. Santos and his son were on their way to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui on his motorcycle. Maybe the road was wet or he was going fast. Whatever the reason, they had an accident and both died at the scene. I could only imagine how his young wife who had seemed so content and happy must have felt.

I was stunned and 16 years later still feel a bit stunned I think in part because Santos probably would have been great for local conservation efforts. He was from the Sarapiqui area, was engaging, and had a passion for birding. I am glad to have known him however briefly and can’t help but think of him during those times when I help someone get their lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail as it nervously calls from the edge of a forest stream.

The Grey-necked Wood-Rail below was seen near Arenal but looks a lot like the scene that Santos and I witnessed.

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica

Lodging near Carara has always been limited, appropriate accommodation for most birders particularly so. Birding tours to Costa Rica and independent birders birding in Costa Rica have often stayed at Villa Lapas or Punta Leona; two fairly expensive choices for lodging with good birding on the grounds. The Hotel Carara in the heart of seaside Tarcoles is moderately priced (and is close to good birding), but you can’t see a great deal of birds at the hotel itself. A moderately-priced hotel near Carara National Park that also had good birding on its grounds was non-existent until Cerro Lodge opened a few years ago. The combination of lower pricing (around $70 for a double) and strategic, dry forest location near the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles (the one with all the people checking out the crocodiles) have been making it a top choice for lodging among birders and tour companies who visit Carara National Park in Costa Rica.

On recent guiding trips to Cerro Lodge, several birders on guided tours were enjoying the morning birding from the restaurant that overlooks a ravine and distant mangroves. Although there is a rough trail that accesses interesting forest  near the lodge (I would love to survey it), most people opt for birding around the cabins and restaurant, and along the main road in front of the lodge.

Because of the view from the restaurant, this is a great place to watch a number of birds in flight. Dawn started with flybys of several Tropical Kingbirds likely coming from their roosts in the mangroves. Other, more exciting birds that spend the night in the mangroves also flew overhead and in front of us while we drank our morning coffee and filled up on gallo pinto, eggs, and tropical fruit. Some of these were:

Red-billed Pigeon,

Scarlet Macaw,

and parrots such as Red-lored, White-crowned, White-fronted, and


and parakeets such as Orange-chinned, Crimson-fronted, and


Waterbirds such as Muscovy Ducks, Anhingas, White Ibis, and various egrets also flew over as they traveled between wetlands, while a few Montezuma Oropendolas also did flybys.

Several raptors were also be seen flying over the cabins or seen in the distance. The most commonly seen are Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras, Grey, Broad-winged, and Common Black Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, and

Crane Hawk- seen almost daily at the lodge or along the entrance road.

The vicinity of Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica is also pretty birdy and is often frequented by edge and dry forest species such as White-tipped Dove, Cinnamon, Rufous-tailed, Steely-vented, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Violaceous Trogon, Groove-billed Ani, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Rose-throated Becard, Rufous-naped Wren, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Stripe-headed Sparrow,

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl,

and Turquoise-browed Motmot.

The road in front of Cerro Lodge hosts these species and much more including

Black-headed Trogon,

Rufous-capped Warbler,

Greenish Elaenia,

Barred Antshrike, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

The section of the road from the lodge to the where it dead ends in the river flood plain requires four-wheel drive and probably harbors a number of good species and should be checked for Double-striped Thick-Knee, Pearl Kite, rails, White-tailed Nightjar, and other owl species. Speaking of owls, the section toward the highway has Striped Owl while Black and White and Pacific Screech occur right around the cabins.

And saving the best for last, birding guide Jason Horn told me about a male Yellow-billed Cotinga that is often seen from the restaurant in the morning. The only problem is that it perches so far away, you may not even pick it up with binoculars. Scoping the distant mangroves though, might result in sighting this endangered species (expect a snow-white speck in the distance).

If interested in being guided at Cerro Lodge as well as lodging there, contact me (Pat O’Donnell) at

Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Seeing Curassows, Guans, and Chachalacas when birding Costa Rica

Before coming to Costa Rica for a birding trip, birders usually wonder what their chances are for seeing certain birds that are particularly rare, colorful, or just look extremely cool. Something particularly rare might be a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, male manakins and Bay-headed Tanagers fit nicely into the colorful category, and Ocellated Antbird comes to mind for looking (and being) extremely cool (although the umbrellabird could also fall into this genre). “Extremely unlikely to see” is reserved for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (although it gets its name from the lack of spots, it is remains un-spotted by just about every birder), while things like Great-tailed Grackle and Tropical Kingbird fit snugly into the “ok, I’m tired of seeing those” category.

The Costa Rican members of the Cracidae family can be placed into the category of “Ooh, I really want to see those birds because although they look kind of like turkeys or colorless turacos, I’m not sure what they are”!

In birding terms, the Cracids are the currasows, guans, and chachalacas. Large, long-tailed birds with dewlaps, they tend to become rare because of another trait shared with turkeys- they taste good. For this reason, they are usually most common in protected areas. Fortunately, Costa Rica has lots of protected forests which makes it pretty easy to see all five Cracids if you know where and how to look for them.

Great Curassow: All curassows look great but this one got the title. Found in most areas of the neotropical region, the many species of curassows are all pretty uncommon outside of protected areas and a few (such as the Wattled, Red-billed, and Blue-billed) are highly endangered due to hunting and habitat loss. Unlike turkeys, the curassows have a very low reproductive rate which makes their populations susceptible to even low levels of hunting. The Great Curassow in Costa Rica has certainly declined for the same reasons as endangered curassow species but is still found in a number of wild and protected areas. Although it ranges in lowland and foothill forests from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador, there are very few places where a birder is guaranteed to see one. Although you might chance across one in wilderness areas, possibly the only place where you are almost certain to see a Great Curassow is at the OTS La Selva station in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica.

This is because they are well protected and have become so accustomed  to people that males and females stroll the grounds without a care in the world. They might look tame, but these are wild birds that just about pose for photos. This close encounter is a far cry from the brief looks one usually gets after spending hours in some hot, humid rainforest. In Costa Rica, Great Curassows can also be seen in other national parks such as Santa Rosa, Rincon de la Vieja, Corcovado, Tortuguero, and others but they are always most reliable at La Selva.

Great Curassows being “great” at La Selva.

Crested Guan: More arboreal than Great Curassows, the Crested Guan is also much easier to see. This brown, turkey like bird with the red dewlap and yapping calls is frequently seen on visits to most protected areas in Costa Rica. They usually aren’t too hard to find because they are so darn noisy. If you hear something calling from the canopy that sounds like a small, yipping dog, you have probably found a Crested Guan.

They are especially numerous in fruiting trees such as those near the administration buildings of La Selva. Unlike the curassow, though, you have a good chance of seeing Crested Guans when birding a wide variety of parks so usually don’t need to visit La Selva to get this bird. I see them on most visits to Braulio Carrillo, Carara, and in almost any areas with enough habitat. Also listen for their wing rattling displays at dawn and dusk.

A Crested Guan hanging out at La Selva.

Black Guan: This is one that you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica because it only occurs here and in western Panama. It’s not that rare in protected areas but is considered to be near threatened by Birdlife International because of threats from hunting and habitat loss in its small range. Although it probably has a fairly small population, since a large area of its montane forest habitat is protected, the Black Guan is doing much better than another regional endemic, the Yellow-billed Cotinga. Although this species often gets missed on birding trips to Costa Rica, I think this is due to its habit of quietly foraging in the vegetation.

Compared to the Crested Guan, the Black Guan hardly vocalizes at all and doesn’t get as alarmed when you walk underneath it. This behavior makes it less noticeable but easy to watch and very photo friendly if you happen to see it. Although I have watched them fly across the highway through Braulio Carrillo National Park, some of the best places for the Black Guan are the cloud forests of the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves, Tapanti National Park (I once saw a dozen in a day on the main road through the park), and forests on Cerro de la Muerte (the Dota area, La Georgina, etc.).

A Black Guan playing peek-a-boo.

Gray-headed Chachalaca: Although it acts and sounds kind of like the one you may have seen in Texas, this is different species. These are fairly common birds found more often outside of protected areas because they prefer second growth.

Because I stuck to birding in forested habitats on my first birding trip to Costa Rica, I missed this species. On my second trip, when I asked a ranger in Braulio Carrillo where to find the Gray-headed Chachalaca, he said, “There are lots in the crappy habitat”. I followed his advice, went to some dense, second growth area along a stream and with a background soundscape of cows mooing from acres of birdless pasture, saw my first Gray-headed Chachalacas!

As is usual with this and other species of Ortalis, I saw a group of a dozen or so that clambered and clucked their way through the low, dense vegetation. When birding in Costa Rica, you might run into this species at any number of humid lowland, second growth sites and is a good bird to watch for around lodges or while driving through this type of habitat. Note that this species is rare at Carara and is mostly found in the more humid forest of the hills above the national park (accessible along the road to Bijagual).

These chachalacas look slanted because I took these pictures from inside a car. We were driving near Arenal, pulled over upon seeing these, and as traffic sped by, managed a few digiscoped images.

Plain Chachalaca: If you saw those chachalacas at feeders in Texas, this is the same species. In Costa Rica, it’s pretty local but regular around Montezuma and other hilly areas with patches of humid forest on the Nicoya Peninsula. In general, it’s easier to see in southern Texas and eastern Mexico than in Costa Rica and has the same habits as the Gray-headed Chachalaca. No pics of this one!

Birding Costa Rica Introduction south pacific slope

The new road to Caldera in Costa Rica is finally open

It was thirty years in the making, but the new road to the coast is finally open in Costa Rica! If the world ends in 2012 as the Mayans predicted, then at least we have two years to zoom back and forth between the crowded Central Valley and the open space of the hot central Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This road has been talked about for so long in Costa Rica that it became legendary long before any of its asphalt was mixed.

People have been saying things like:

“It’s going to take thirty minutes to get to the coast from San Jose”!

“THE ROAD is going to have four lanes the entire way”!

“It will be like taking a thruway in the states”!

“It will be a straight route to the coast”!

“I can see a Royal Flycatcher half an hour after leaving San Jose”!

Ok, that last one was what I had been thinking but in any case, all of us in Costa Rica have been very excited about the opening of the road. In fact, we were so excited that Janet Peterson (a fellow birding friend) and I decided to check out the road last Sunday.

We weren’t the only ones.

Even though we left pretty early, a variety of cars joined us to check out the new road. There were old, slow cars born in the 70s that like mechanical family patrons, carried entire families to the promising coast. There were new SUVs that zoomed along like tanks (and like tanks threatened to drive over the older, slower, smaller vehicles). There were small buses filled with local tourists as well as what appeared to be school buses (because of their size and the fact that they were filled with students). Taking into account the number of break-downs, it was apparent that a lot of these cars hadn’t been out of the garage or front yard for some time. It was one last hurrah for them before heading to the junkyard I suppose.

Translated from the mechanical Spanish, “Please, just one last trip along the new road. I just want my tires to experience one last smooth, pot-hole-less ride before I blow a final gasket (cough, cough)”.

And translated from regular people Spanish, “Ok, let’s take the car for a spin. The road is open”!

“But dear, that car doesn’t even work”!

“Sure it will! I’ll just pour in some water here, a bit of oil there, fill the tires, toss some Salsa Lizano into the tank for good measure and off we go! And if it does break, let it happen on the NEW ROAD”!

And so it did happen. On January thirty-first, many a car let out it’s last gasp of exhaust along the road to Caldera in the form of a black cloud that said farewell and enjoy the tolls…

Yes, tolls, not road. Well, the road can be enjoyable but the tolls sure aren’t. That sort of torturous, constant stopping and going in the tropical heat is probably what did in the older vehicles. From San Jose to Orotina, for a distance of fifty kilometers at the most (that’s thirty miles for us anti-metric Americans) there are at least four different tolls that I recall that will leave you about 2,000 colones lighter. Although it’s a sneaky rip-off that most tourists won’t mind, locals who live near the new road aren’t very pleased (especially because there are few to no options in some areas).

To get to the coast fast for my Royal Flycatcher fix at Carara, I actually don’t mind shelling out those colones but I DO mind having to wait in line at the toll booths. Even though the traffic didn’t seem too bad on the way down to Carara, we were still twiddling our thumbs and wondering why they built so few lanes for the tolls. That wasn’t so bad but on our way back later that same day, the new road was a congested mess because of the toll booths and sections of the road that only had two lanes. The lines were too long for mere thumb twiddling. No, we felt as if we were aging while sitting there. If there would have been birds to look at, we would have been OK but that just wasn’t the case.

So, to sum things up about the new road and in answer to all of those expectations, despite thirty years of planning, it seems that the planners forgot to design the road for the amount of traffic it will get. If you go early in the morning, it will be a comfortable, quick trip that does more or less goes straight to the coast. BUT, it doesn’t have four lanes (it has two or three) so if you go later in the day, expect to have to wait at every toll booth and at some of the two-laned sections.

For birders who need to travel between the coast and San Jose, I suggest using the new road in the morning and the old, curvy, scenic road that goes through San Mateo in the afternoon. I took the old road the other day and it was a wonderful drive with hardly any traffic. Plus, you can stop along the old road at one of two cafes that have stunning overlooks and can be good for dry forest birds.

As for the Royal Flycatcher, we got more than a fix. Along the river trail in Carara, we were seeing them the entire time and one was even attempting to build a nest above the trail.

Other interesting sightings were Three-wattled Bellbird heard, Gray-headed Tanager, and the usual great variety of wrens, hummingbirds, and other flycatchers typically seen along this always birdy trail.

Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Costa Rica living

New house = new yard list of Costa Rican birds

After hectic times in December and January that included bus trips to Panama for a wedding in the middle of nowhere, getting passports for Miranda, and flying to snowy Niagara Falls (with Miranda suffering from the stomach flu on the way home as a bonus), we FINALLY moved into our new house. It’s near Alajuela in sunny Santa Barbara and most importantly, is closer to green space.

With the house at the edge of town and thus closer to coffee farms and patchy forest, I expect to get a nice house list going (I can’t truly call it a yard list because I am going to count whatever I hear or see from the house). Since we have a a pretty broad vista of the surrounding countryside, I hope the neighbors won’t mind too much when they see me looking out the window with binoculars as I try to identify some distant raptor, or using a scope to check out an interesting looking silhouette perched atop a distant tree.

Of course I started keeping track of birds as soon as I stepped off of the moving truck. Although I can’t recall what the first species was, here’s the list as of today (which also represents common birds in Costa Rica that one can expect):

Cattle Egret- As in most places in Costa Rica where there is some open areas, at least a few flyby each morning and evening.

Black Vulture- I have seen very few of this common species.

Turkey Vulture- Haven’t seen too many of these either.

Black-shouldered Kite- One appears to have taken up residence in the neighborhood. I sometimes see it in flight (looks like a gull except when it hovers) or perched at the top of a nearby Porro tree (Erythina sp.) with brilliant orange flowers.

Short-tailed Hawk- A pair of this common raptor appear to use the ravine.

Crested Caracara- I was kind of surprised to see one fly over.

Gray-necked Wood Rail- Heard a pair the other morning calling from a ravine across the road.

Red-billed Pigeon- No Rock Pigeons around here! These fat looking birds call from telephone wires and tree tops.

White-winged Dove- Actually far fewer than I had expected.

Inca Dove- Not too many of these either.

Common Ground Dove- Seems to be a few of these around.

White-tipped Dove- I have been hearing them call from the nearby coffee farms.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet- Just a few flyovers each day.

Blue and White Swallow- One of the most common birds here. There always seems to be a few in view or heard giving their scratchy vocalizations overhead.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- I need to birdify the backyard to attract these and other hummingbirds.

Blue-crowned Motmot- I have heard one giving its double hoot from the ravine.

Hoffman’s Woodpecker- Very few around here.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia- I have heard a pair singing somewhere in the vicinity.

Great Kiskadee- A few of these personable flycatchers are around.

Boat-billed Flycatcher- A pair live in the ravine.

Social Flycatcher- I have heard a few.

Tropical Kingbird- Of course there are some of these guys around.

Brown Jay- A noisy flock moves through some nearby tall trees every morning and afternoon.

House Wren- Oh yeah, they live in Costa Rica and look and sound a lot like ones in North America.

Plain Wren- I hear these every day. Plain Wrens love coffee farms so much that they should be renamed the “Coffee Wren”.

Clay-colored Robin- Several of these around.

Tennessee Warbler- I have had a few.

Rufous-capped Warbler- Pretty common in the coffee farms.

Blue-gray Tanager- A few are around.

Flame-colored Tanager- I heard one calling yesterday from the ravine.

Montezuma Oropendola- There have been single flyovers and today I saw a veritable flock moving through the flowering Porro trees.

Great-tailed Grackle- Just a few (must be too far from the town plaza where they typically congregate).

Bronzed Cowbird- A few flybys. If you see some birds in flight that resemble winter finches, they are Bronzed Cowbirds.

Baltimore Oriole- A few are around.

Rufous-collared Sparrow- One of the most common bird species.

Birding Costa Rica feeders Introduction middle elevations south pacific slope

Birding at Talari Mountain Lodge, Costa Rica

A couple days after coming back to where summer reigns eternal, I did some guiding at the Talari Mountain Lodge in the Valle de el General area of Costa Rica. Not too far from where Alexander Skutch lived and carried out so many life history studies of Costa Rican birds, Talari is located about 10 minutes from San Isidro (Perez Zeledon) on the banks of the Rio General. Like much of the lower elevations of the valley, there is very little intact forest and the avifauna can’t compare to its former glory. HOWEVER, there are still a fair number of interesting, local species present at Talari which with the forest growing back, acts like an oasis for birds.

Talari Mountain Lodge, Costa Rica

Despite its name, Talari is not really located high up in the mountains although it is situated just off the road up to the village from which hikers depart to ascend Costa Rica’s highest mountain. The birding was alright at Talari for a variety of common species, a few rarities, and wonderful, close looks at a number of colorful species that visited their fruit feeders. Overall, I think it would be an especially good place for beginning tropical birders, or to use as a base for visiting various sites in the General Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator- a common Costa Rican bird that is a bit more reclusive than say a

Clay-colored Robin.

I was impressed with how quiet and peaceful Talari was. Nights were cool, the sound of the river was soothing, and music in the restaurant was played at a low volume. The restaurant was pretty basic, expensive (although breakfast is included in the price), and guests have to give advance notice about taking meals there, but the action at the feeders just outside the restaurant is priceless.

There aren’t too many places where you can watch Speckled Tanagers at feeders.

Cherrie’s Tanagers are also very common,

The feeders were visited by stunning Green Honeycreepers. The male is the one with the black on the head.

Unfortunately, I missed a visit by Fiery-billed Aracaris and wasn’t quick enough to capture a Streaked Saltator that was also visiting the feeders. Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Baltimore Orioles, Red-legged Honeycreepers, and Tennessee Warblers were some of the other species that also enjoyed the bananas.

Away from the feeders, birding was very nice in the morning at two large Inga species that were laden with small fruits. As soon as it became light, the crowns of these important trees quivered with Clay-colored Robins, Great Kiskadees, TKs, Social, Gray-capped, and Boat-billed Flycatchers, Palm, Blue-gray, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, and a Rose-throated Becard, while Gray-headed Chachalacas clambered around the thick branches of the sub-canopy.

We had a great view of these trees from the cabins and spent much of two mornings scanning and scoping their crowns and the tops of adjacent trees. This kept us pretty busy and happy to find our main target species on both mornings- Turquoise Cotinga. No dove-looking scaly feathered female either but two vivid (as if Cotinga species be anything but vivid) males that shone like Navajo jewelry in the morning light. This regional endemic is more adaptable and thus more easily seen than the endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga but is never guaranteed because they move around in search of fruiting trees and are nearly silent.

Here is one of the males- a great way to start my 2010 list.

and here is another hanging out with a Masked Tityra.

Other interesting or local Costa Rican birds we had were:

Pearl Kite- two birds doing aerial displays and calling. They looked more like kingbirds than raptors!

Tropical Screech Owl- a common owl but owls are always noteworthy.

Charming Hummingbird- a few a these regional endemics around.

Long-billed Starthroat- a beautiful hummingbird that perched above the restaurant.

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird- a few of this General Valley specialty were around.

Olivaceous Piculet- a few around the lodge doing the typical inconspicuous piculet thing.

Pale-breasted Spinetail- if you think you hear a Willow Flycatcher, it’s one of these guys!

Orange-collared Manakin- several tough to see individuals frequented the forest patches.

Rufous-browed Peppershrike- a widespread neotropical species that often gets overlooked in Costa Rica.

Rufous-breasted Wren- I wish I had a photo of this handsome species.

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush- the gray-headed taxon was common in shady undergrowth.

Scrub Greenlet- another easily overlooked bird.

I think two days was enough to bird Talari itself but as I mentioned above, it would be a nice place to use as a base for birding a number of other sites, including Skutch’s Farm, “Los Cusingos”. The lodge costs $75 per night for a double (taxes and breakfast included) and is owned by a friendly, accommodating Tico couple who are making efforts to operate as green as possible.

Here is a view of the river and high mountains from the lodge property,

and this is their “green” jacuzzi that should be in operation by the time you visit.

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica – Target Birds for 2010

While I write, I am in one of the gull capitals of North America- Niagara Falls. Ironically, for the three weeks I have been here, I haven’t done any birding. In fact, I didn’t even bring binoculars because I figured there wouldn’t be time to watch gulls or search for owls and I was right.

I am on the American side of the falls, visiting my family, and I came here with my wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and daughter. The double shot of family, briefly visiting the Book Corner, and spending as much time as possible at DiCamillo’s bakery has been great but I am the sole birder so a plethora of shopping excursions (groan), visits to the falls, seeing friends, and staying warm have taken precedence over meditatively staring into the Niagara Gorge at flocks of graceful gulls. Well, I wasn’t going to get any lifers there anyways and I don’t mind because I haven’t been “home” in more than 2 years.

I noticed some birds up here in this frozen realm (a pair of Northern Cardinals made me smile and it was cool to pick out a probable first year Glaucous Gull hanging out below the American Falls), but as always, my gaze is focused on lands where bird species outnumber snowflakes.  We will be heading back to the birdy country of Costa Rica on Tuesday and I should be out in the field by Thursday to bird and guide in the moss heavy forests of the Talamancas. Since this will be another BIG YEAR (hopefully not as casual as the last), I hope to pick up a few target birds next week. If I can get as lucky as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird wintering in a patch of Verbenia, maybe I will tick one or two of the following off of my list of ten most wanted Costa Rican bird species in 2010:

1. MASKED DUCK. My neotropical nemesis gets the number one spot on my list. I have been birding in the neotropical region since my first visit to Costa Rica in 1992 and have yet to see one of these skulking, nocturnal ducks. They might look a bit like a Ruddy Duck but they sure don’t act like one! I may have briefly seen one in the Dominican Republic as we sped by a roadside pond but despite spinning around and zooming back to where we had both espied a silhouette of a semi-submerged bird, our quarry had already disappeared. I must get to CATIE to finally tick this bird!!

2. Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. No one sees this guy. Well, no one until Jay Vandergast got a glimpse of this small owl species in flight in 2009 in the Savegre area. Unlike their northern kin, this owl sans spots does not migrate and so cannot be found by painstakingly searching through conifer groves along the shores of the Great Lakes. Hopefully I will get the chance to stay at La Georgina sometime to try for this little known species.

3. Ochraceous Pewee. The third on my list because it occupies a glaring hole on my bird list. I am almost ashamed to say that I still need this uncommon but fairly often seen species. I am pretty sure I will finally get this one.

4. Pinnated Bittern. Another nemesis of mine and one that I hope will finally turn up this year although I really don’t want to have to walk through the La Tigra marshes to make it happen.

5. Harpy Eagle. Heck, why not. They exist in the Osa and have recently been seen in Tortuguero. Although I have seen this monster in Peru, I would love to have it honor my Costa Rica list!

6. Tawny-faced Quail. It occurs in Costa Rica and I need it. Why do I keep forgetting about this bird! I need to get up to some of the protected forests in the San Carlos area and stare into the undergrowth until a covey appears!

7. Ocellated Crake. This probably won’t happen because seeing one requires finding this rare species in remnant savannah somewhere near Buenos Aires. Since that would almost certainly be more time consuming than I could manage, it probably won’t happen. BUT, I don’t believe in losing hope for lifers so its on the list.

8. Red-fronted Parrotlet. I wonder if I will finally get this one in 2010? I have probably seen it twice but couldn’t get my bins on the birds fast enough for lifer views. It really is about time to tick this one and I have hopes that I will get the parrotlet in 2010.

9. Pheasant Cuckoo. Ohhh that would be nice. Another bird that is just never seen in Costa Rica and one that I have heard in Peru but have never laid eyes on. It would be great to find it to not only get a lifer but also to try and figure out what sort of habitat it uses in Costa Rica.

10. Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. Ok, another nemesis. I am pretty sure I saw this species once at Quebrada Gonzalez but since I only glimpsed the tail of a bird that ran off into the undergrowth, I really do need a better look. Yes, they are seen more easily in Panama but I live in Costa Rica so please ground-cuckoo, attend an antswarm at Quebrada Gonzalez!

11. White-tailed Nightjar. I need it for a lifer and they shouldn’t be all that rare so I have high hopes for this nocturnal species.

12. Keel-billed Motmot. I really thought I was going to get this one in 2009. Hopefully this year!

big year Birding Costa Rica

End of a BIG YEAR and birding highlights for Costa Rica in 2009

2009 is officially coming to a close and so is my BIG YEAR. Since I didn’t do the usual things one does during a BIG YEAR such as travel long distances on short notice, stumble around in the dark of the night while hooting like an owl, or risk my life, I feel a bit apprehensive about using caps for my BIG YEAR. Nevertheless, there aren’t any stipulations or rules for doing a BIG YEAR stating that reckless behavior is required so I won’t feel too bad about keeping the Caps Lock on. I did what I could with the handicaps of new family, young daughter, work, and no private vehicle for most of the time. This means that I couldn’t spend too many nights away from home (nor too many days for that matter), and that my birding time was very limited overall. In fact, a lot of the birds for my BIG YEAR were identified while guiding as opposed to birding on my own. That was perfectly fine with me because no matter what someone else’s birding level might be, I would much rather share birding with others- something that probably has a lot to do with mostly birding alone from the age of 7 to 12 and wondering where the other birders were. In any case, whether out alone, guiding, or birding with friends (especially Janet Peterson), my final total for 2009 for all species seen or heard in Costa Rica is: 510.

There are a fair number of gaps in this list due to not birding Guanacaste, not getting up to Monteverde nor down into La Selva, and doing almost no shorebirding. Therefore, things like Great Currasow, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Elegant Trogon, Streak-backed Oriole, and a whole flock of shorebird species didn’t make it onto my 2009 list. Nor did pelagic species but due to the long standing disagreeent between myself and bouncing up and down on the open ocean, pelagic species hardly exist for me as possibilities in any case. My first species was a TK while my last was Blue-headed Parrot. The TK was heard singing its dawn song from our apartment while the parrot was heard flying overhead as I awoke in a hotel in the border town of Paso Canoas on December 18th. 

Although it is still 2009 as I write this, I won’t be seeing anything in Costa Rica until 2010 because I traded the warm, tropical latitudes on December 22nd for the freezing, boreal, treeless landscape of western New York to spend the holiday with family and friends. There are some birds around here but my BIG YEAR is restricted to Costa Rica so I won’t be adding Ring-billed Gull or Eurasian Starling to the list. Here are some of my birding highlights from 2009 in taxonomic order:

King Vulture or the one and only KV or Big K: Although expected, a mostly white vulture that is not a BV or TV is always a highlight. Saw these on just about every visit to Quebrada Gonzalez and at such sites as Pocosol and a new birding site near San Ramon that I hope to blog about sometime soon.

Plumbeous Kite: Easy elsewhere but uncommon in Costa Rica, I had one gracing the skies above the Arenal hanging bridges in March.

Tiny Hawk: Just a glimpse along the La Selva entrance road but enough to identify this reclusive little raptor.

Crane Hawk: Regular around Carara, I had three birds this year. I put it as a highlight because this species was my neotropical nemesis for several years. I finally caught up with it at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru in 2001. My current neotropical nemesis bird is Masked Duck (which I hope to get in 2010!).

Black-eared Wood-Quail: Very good to see this tough species at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Olive-backed Quail-dove: A pretty uncommon bird anywhere, I was excited to see one at Quebrada Gonzalez where they are rare residents.

Great Green Macaw: A few heard at Termales del Bosque near La Selva, and near Braulio Carrillo. Always a highlight and especially so because there are fewer around with every passing year. Although the trees this species needs for food have protected status and are planted in northern Costa Rica, it will be a long time before we see any population increase due to their low reproductive rate and the lack of cavities for possible nest sites.

Yellow-naped Parrot: Another parrot that had declined but is still seen in small numbers in the northwest and around Carara. Had great views of a few at Cerro Lodge.

Lesser Ground Cuckoo: It was nice to pick up this species by call in the western Central Valley because I didn’t get a chance to make it to Guanacaste where it is pretty common.

Costa Rican Pygy-Owl: A lone bird being harrassed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird in the wonderful forests of La Georgina was one of my favorite highlights of 2009.

Short-tailed Nighthawk: One of the last birds on our Big Day, Johan, Ineke, Dieter, and I had fun watching one hawk bugs at the La Selva entrance road.

Chuck-will’s Widow: One seen perched over the trail at Quebrada Gonzalez was only my second ever.

Spot-fronted Swift: A few seen well enough to note the white spots on the face were flying around the La Selva entrance road. I think this was my only lifer for the year!

Snowcap: A male buzzing around the canopy at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of my first birds of the year.

Green and Rufous Kingfisher: A brief look at a female in Manzanillo was my first for Costa Rica. Robert Dean very accurately illustrates the distinctive bill shape of this species.

American Pygmy Kingfisher: After always being on the lookout for this species in the right places sans success, I finally caught up with it in Manzanillo.

Yellow-eared Toucanet: Several nice looks at this fancy bird at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Black-headed Antthrush: Much easier in Ecuador, I heard one at Pocosol.

Black-crowned Antpitta: A few heard and seen at one of the only accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica-Quebrada Gonzalez.

Lesser Elaenia: A local species in Costa Rica, I was happy to get brief looks as one at Kiri Lodge. 

Purple-throated Fruitcrow: I couldn’t believe that they didn’t come in to my imitation but I did hear them at Manzanillo. This is a species that has become quite uncommon with deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird: Nice looks at birds at the Aerial Tram and at Rara Avis. Never guaranteed and always a highlight!

Sharpbill: Close looks at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Cerulean Warbler: My first for Costa Rica in the forests of Rara Avis!

Wrenthrush: Expected but the ridiculously close looks I got at La Georgina deserve mention.

Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager: A few seen at Quebrada Gonzalez and possibly elsewhere. Always uncommon and good to see.

Blue and Gold Tanager: Uncommon, local, but expected at Quebrada Gonzalez, Rara Avis, and Pocosol. Like a Euphonia on steroids, these are great birds.

Red-crowned Ant-Tanager: Uncommon in Costa Rica. The U of Paz is a good place for them.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch: Seen at the La Tigra wetlands near La Selva, this massive-billed little bird always deserves a mention.

Shiny Cowbird: One at Manzanillo was a new Costa Rican bird for me. 

And now for the low points, misses, and musings:

Slaty-breasted Tinamou: Didn’t spend enough time near La Selva to get this one. A bird that appears to have declined with deforestation in Costa Rica.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron: Just didn’t get around to hanging out at the stake outs for this tough species.

Black-crowned Night-Heron: Saw a few Yellow-crowns but none of this uncommon species.

Green Ibis: Not enough evenings spent in the Sarapiqui region.

Great Black Hawk: I haven’t seen this species for some time in Costa Rica whereas I used to see it regularly in Braulio Carrillo (during the 90s).

Sunbittern: Just didn’t spend enough time at stakeouts.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: This diminutive parrot eludes me for yet another year! I probably caught a glimpse of a pair at Arenal in 2008, and almost certainly had a brief flyby of a small flock near Quebrada Gonzalez (seen for a second while washing my hands and not relocated), but still need lifer views!

No Potoos!- Always tough, didn’t find any, nor spent enough time at night in their haunts.

Brown Violetear- Thought I’d get it at Tapanti but no such luck. More difficult in Costa Rica after Cinchona was destroyed by the earthquake.

Lanceolated Monklet: Still no monklet in Costa Rica despite my many attempts at whistling them in.

Ocellated Antbird: I was suprised to not get this one although probably because I ran into very few antswarms in 2009.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher: No sign of this rare bird at El Gavilan. Rancho Naturalista has become one of the only sites for this species.

Ovenbird: I was pretty surprised to not get one of these.

Sulphur-rumped Tanager: Still need this local, little known species for a lifer!!

Prevost’s Ground Sparrow: Didn’t spend enough time birding coffee plantations in the Central Valley- would be good to study this species as it has lost (and continues to lose) a lot of habitat.

Giant Cowbird: No Giant Cowbird this year. A pretty uncommon bird in Costa Rica.

Good birding in 2010 and hope to see you in Costa Rica!


Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley middle elevations

Tapanti National Park- good, middle elevation birding in Costa Rica

During my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I visited Tapanti for a day. Back then it had wildlife refuge status and had a cheaper entrance fee but not much else has changed since then-and that’s a good thing! On subsequent trips, including a day and a half of guiding I did there recently, I still feel impressed with the birding in Tapanti and still get excited about visiting this easy to bird national park. The amazing profusion of epiphytic growth (including many orchids), the general appearance of the forest, the scented air, and certain species such as Streaked Xenops, a few foliage-gleaners, and other birds being easier to find here than other sites in Costa Rica all remind me of Andean cloud forests more than anyplace else in Costa Rica.

Birding in Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica.

A visit to Tapanti always turns up something good or at the least you can get nice, close looks at a variety of bird species. Another thing I like about it is that one can easily bird from the main road and see just about everything. For the adventurous, there are a few steep, difficult trails that access the forest interior while those who need an easier trail can bird along a short loop that parallels the river (and is very good for American Dipper).

The main place to stay near the park is Kiri Lodge. The friendly owners have a restaurant (fairly limited menu), trout ponds, and small cabinas ($45 for a double).

Vegetation at Kiri.

On our recent trip to Kiri Lodge and Tapanti, being the rainy month of November and the wettest area in Costa Rica, we weren’t surprised to be greeted by a saturating, misty downpour. The nice thing about Kiri Lodge was that we could bird from beneath the shelter of the open air restaurant and picnic areas near the trout ponds. One of the most common hummingbirds was Violet Sabrewing- a few of these spectacular, large, purple hummingbirds made frequent visits to banana plants and heliconias near the lodge.

Birds in areas of high rainfall aren’t all that bothered by precicipation. In fact, the birding is usually better when it’s raining on and off, during light rain, or in overcast weather, than on beautiful, sunny days. On our first day at Kiri and Tapanti, the light rain and heavy overcast skies kept the birds active all day long. In the second growth habitats around Kiri Lodge we were kept busy watching common, edge species as well as middle elevation species such as Red-headed Barbet, Blue-hooded Euphonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulet were also common around the trout ponds.

Great Kiskadee in the rain.

Black Phoebe.

Of interest were flocks of Red-billed Pigeons that were zipping around the regenerating hillsides to feast on fruiting Inga trees, flocks of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas flying high overhead as they transited between the forested ridge tops, and one Lesser Elaenia seen (an uncommon, local species in Costa Rica). The best birds though, were in the national park. Just after entering, we were greeted by a calling Ornate Hawk Eagle. After playing hide and seek with it in the canopy for 15 minutes, the adult eagle came out into the open and flew overhead for perfect looks. Around the same time, the rain stopped and bird activity picked up tremendously. Although we didn’t see any really rare species, the number of birds and great looks made up for that. We could barely take a step without seeing something- our first bird being Golden-bellied Fycatcher.

Shortly thereafter, we had Golden-Olive Woodpecker, a beautiful Collared Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, loads of common Bush and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Black-faced Solitaires feeding on white, roadside berries, Red-faced Spinetails, Slate-throated Redstart, Tropical Parulas,

Tropical Parula

and migrant warblers such as Black-throated green, Black and white, Blackburnian, and Golden-winged.

We also managed glimpses at three hummingbirds more often seen at Tapanti than other sites in Costa Rica; Green-fronted Lancebill (at least 5), White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied.

The following day was a total contrast with sunny weather and much less activity. Our efforts at chancing upon an antpitta or Lanceolated Monklet along the easy loop trail went without reward although we did see such species as Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, American Dipper, and White-throated Spadebill, and heard Immaculate Antbird.

Quiet birding but great scenery!

Although in being such an easy, beautiful escape from the urbanized Central Valley, Tapanti can get somewhat  crowded on weekends, in my opinion, the excellent forests and perfect climate of this national park always make a visit worthwhile. The only problem is that it’s rather costly to get there without your own vehicle as one has to take a $15-$20 taxi from Orosi. The walk isn’t too bad though if you don’t mind hiking through shaded and semi-shaded coffee plantations for about 9 kilometers.

One of my hopes is to eventually have more free time to visit Tapanti more often as it always has surprises in store for the visiting birder. On a side note, the butterflying is probably also the best I have seen in Costa Rica.

Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What to study for a birding trip to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an easy place to visit and see a large number of bird species, many of which are spectacular. With airline tickets still pretty cheap from North America (especially from New York), there’s almost no excuse not to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Ever since my first trip here in 1992, I have always told people what I discovered- that Costa Rica is much easier to visit than you think and that you should go! From North America, it’s pretty close, infastructure is better than a lot of places in the region, the country is small enough to conceivably bird in a wide variety of habitats, and although prices have gone up, it can still be done in an affordable manner. The birding is challenging but always exciting and you can start getting prepared by studying either or both of the bird books for Costa Rica. Whether you take a tour or do it on your own, studying the birds beforehand will seriously enhance your trip and leave more time for birding instead of pouring through the book during your time in Costa Rica.

The two bird books for Costa Rica are, “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch, and “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Garrigues and Dean. Whether you get the classic, “old school” Stiles and Skutch, or the updated, modernized Garrigues and Dean, I don’t think you can really go wrong with either one.

Here are some ups and downs about each:

While Stiles and Skutch has more information overall and makes for a great reference book, this also makes it rather large in size for the field. The size of the book is also just big enough to take up a fair amount of packing space. Because of its size, for me, it’s more of a book to keep back at the hotel or at home rather than one for the field. Although some of the illustrations could be improved, overall they are pretty good, are for the most part useful for identification, and the text always makes for good reading. Being several years old, it also needs to be updated. This is especially true for the sort of dynamic factors that every field guide needs to keep up on such as bird distribution and occurrence, classification, and advances in our knowledge of identification.

Garrigues and Dean attempted to correct these disadvantages with their book and I think it has worked out nicely. It is the perfect size for the field without having to seriously reduce the size of the illustrations. They were able to accomplish this by leaving out several of the seabirds that most birders visiting Costa Rica aren’t likely to encounter and in reducing the text to the bare minimum needed for identification (pointing out important field marks with notes on habitat, behavior, and abundance). Instead of having plates with the name of the bird on the opposite page and then a reference to the page with the appropriate text, Garrigues and Dean put all of this right with the bird and include maps! Even though Costa Rica is a pretty small country with fairly well defined life zones, distribution maps still come in handy. I also like the illustrations better in Garrigues and Dean. They are more accurate because of their detail, do not overcrowd the pages, and are just simply nice to look at. To point out one or two things that could be improved, regarding identification of Black and white Hawk-Eagle, the white leading edge to the wing is not mentioned as a field mark (and is an excellent one), nor is anything said about Ocellated Poorwhill possibly being Choco Poorwhill (the vocalization of which differs from that of Ocellated Poorwhil- the only one described in the book). Overall though, the book is great and better for field identification.

That said, although I think you should bring at least one of these books with you to Costa Rica, you don’t really have to bring it into the field (nor should you in my opinion). What? Not bring a book into the steaming jungle or misty cloud forest? Yes, exactly. Leave that book back at the hotel and figure out what you saw during or after dinner. Otherwise, you will miss birds during the time it takes to get the book out of your pack and leafing through the pages until you find the possible contenders. It’s quicker to do this with Garrigues and Dean but I think you will still see more if you take notes on field marks or try to remember what you saw and don’t even think about taking that book out during the hectic frenzy of a mixed flock!

The thing to keep in mind with tropical birding is that there are lots of species that are possible but most of them are naturally rare. Forest species in particular seem to have large territories and might be encountered just once or twice during your trip. Many are also much shyer than temperate zone species, are masters at camouflage and staying hidden to avoid the myriad of predators they face, and often specialize on certain fruits or microhabitats. This all basically means that in the field, you have to be ready and quick at all times with your binoculars because for many species, you might just have one or two chances to see it and when you do, the looks might not be all that long. Studying the field marks from your bird book will aid you in knowing what to look for, especially with the looks one gets while watching a mixed flock.

If you aren’t familiar with what a mixed flock is, imagine wondering where all the birds have been for the past two hours while you have been carefully walking through primary rain forest when all of a sudden, the vegetation all around you seems to be twitching and shaking with birds but most of them still seem to be hidden! As various chirps and chip notes give away their location and others tantalize you with their songs, you manage to get onto a woodcreeper but can’t see its head (which is what you need to see to identify it), aren’t quick enough to focus on some small flycatcher in the canopy, but then get great looks at one, two, no, four different tanagers! Just as you are getting better looks at more of the birds in the flock, they seem to have moved too far into the forest to watch. Left feeling exhilirated and a bit frustrated, at least studying the books paid off in identifying some of the birds and you would have missed a lot if you had tried to look up birds in the book during all of that excitement.

Even with dozens of evenings spent with your Costa Rican bird book before the trip, it will never make up for learning in a field setting because birds just love to show themselves so differently from the way they are illustrated. Here are some examples of the usual looks we get:

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Spectacled Foliage-gleaner

Believe it or not, a Northern Scrub Flycatcher!

A Bright-rumped Atilla (why oh why did it have to turn its head away)

See if you can find the Olive Tanager!

Or how about this Emerald Tanager!

This is where a qualified, knowledgable guide comes in handy although no matter how well a guide can identify birds by sight, he or she still won’t up to par unless they can also identify birds by their vocalizations. Yet another way to prepare for a birding trip to Costa Rica instead of say working or doing the dishes, becoming familiar with bird vocalizations will also enhance your trip. There are a few cds available but I don’t believe that there is a comprehensive country wide dvd or set of cds as of yet. David Ross offers a few cds that cover most areas of the country, and vocalizations can also be listened to at Xeno Canto. Dan Mennil has a website with some dry forest birds, and Doug Von Gausig also has a nice selection of bird species to listen to. I hope to post songs on this blog eventually although it might be a few months before that happens. Keep posted though for that and other surprises that will help you have a better birding trip to Costa Rica.