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Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Introduction Pacific slope

Birding the University of Peace, Costa Rica

Many birders that visit Costa Rica end up with an afternoon or a morning to kill in San Jose or the Central Valley. With so few options for birding in the sprawl of concrete and asphalt, most opt to relax in the garden of their hotel, visit a market in San Jose, or buy souvenirs. If you are birding with public transportation, then the constraints imposed by bus schedules and routes unfortunately leave you with little choice but to resort to such rather non birdy activities. If you have a rental car, though, forget the souvenirs and head over to the University of Peace. You can always find the same painted feathers, glass-enclosed Morpho Butterflies, and tee-shirts emblazoned with dolphins and “pura vida” while traveling between birding sites, and since you are in Costa Rica, you’ve got to keep your priorities in straight in any case.

The University of Peace (U. la Paz) is located at the southwestern edge of the Central Valley near Ciudad Colon and is a welcome change of tranquility and green space from the crowded Central Valley. Although it’s unfortunately not on any bus route, by car, it takes only 40 minutes (or more with traffic) to drive there from San Jose. It’s also pretty easy to get to by following the signs to Santa Ana, Cuidad Colon, and then the U la Paz. Once you get out of Ciudad Colon, the “Rodeo Drive” road along the way is also nice for a variety of common species that utilize the scrubby fields and semi-shaded coffee plantations. During brief stops along this road last week, I had my first male Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year along with things like Boat-billed Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Short-tailed Hawk. This route looked especially nice for birding from a bicycle.

We didn’t stop too much though because we figured our time was better spent at the U la Paz. I honestly don’t know much about this small, quiet university (majors in peace offered?), except that this learning institution has a private park with a fair amount of moist, Pacific-Slope forest, and an entrance fee of only 300 colones! This is another major reason for visiting U la Paz since this fee amounts to less than a dollar while most other parks in Costa Rica cost $8 just to waltz along the trails.

There is a pond at the entrance with the usual domesticated Chinese Swan Geese and Muscovies. The Muscovies were placid while the geese were typically belligerant and nasty. Luckily they were on the other side of the pond. For unknown reasons, the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Montezuma Oropendolas that had been so plentiful around the pond in January were nowhere in sight. I suppose the ducks were galavanting through the countryside to take advantage of the abundant habitat by the rainy season. The oropendolas, though, have no such excuse other than taking (or giving) weaving classes at the adjacent U la Paz.

A friendly, feral Muscovy- wild ones don’t have those white specs.

Past the pond, we had a pretty good morning birding the forest edge and main trail at U la Paz considering that we didn’t arrive until 9 am, the absolute quietest time of the day for birds. The first bird action we ran into was at the start of the trail where a party of Groove-billed Anis were hanging out on a log and in the grass.

They were loathe to leave their log and upon closer inspection we found out why.

Army Ants! Long, black trails of army ants were swarming through the grass and over the logs. The anis were having a grand old time letting the ants flush their prey out of hiding as were Rufous-naped Wrens, Clay-colored Robins, Rufous-capped Warblers, and Brown Jays.

This Rufous-naped Wren got my vote for friendliest bird of the day. It jostled back and forth and poised along the same tree branches for at least 15 minutes and allowed us to take dozens of photos.

Overall the bird diversity at the swarm was pretty low but it was still fun to watch how common species took advantage of it.

Clay-colored Robin pretending to be an antbird.

Walking into the forest, we didn’t have long to go before running into a nice mixed flock along a stream. The nucleus species of the flock appeared to be Red-crowned Ant-tanager. It was too dark to get photos so you will just have to trust me when I say that the males are a deep, handsome red, and the females an unexciting shade of brown (a lot like a Clay-colored Robin). This widespread neotropical bird is rather local and tough to see in Costa Rica with the U la Paz area possibly being the easiest site in the country for this, my #499th species for the year. Other birds that appeared to be hanging out with the ant-tanagers with this and two other mixed flocks we ran into were Rufous and white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Rufous-capped Warblers, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-Olive Flycatcher, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Long-tailed Manakin, and Blue-black Grosbeak.

Further on, we finally tracked down one of the many Blue-throated Goldentails that were maddeningly singing over and over from hidden perches. This beautiful hummingbird with the plastic looking bill is fairly common along forest edge of the Pacific Slope in Costa Rica.

The first half of the trail at U la Paz winds through old orchards with rather few birds. Once the overlook is reached, the trail accesses some very nice, moist forest with an open understory.

The overlook.

We didn’t see too much in this area because of the time of day but still managed a large group of White-faced Capuchins that seemed to be attended by Brown Jays, more of the same species we had already been seeing, and a couple of Fiery-billed Aracaris!

We left the forest around 11:30- the perfect time for mixed flocks and sure enough we ran into a bunch of common, edge species that were hanging out together in an open, park-like area. One of them was a Baltimore oriole masquerading as a Western Tanager.

A Blue-crowned Motmot also made a pleasant addition to the flock,

as did a Boat-billed Flycatcher that foraged low enough for me to finally get good shots of this species (they usually stick to the tree-tops).

Other species in the flock were Squirrel Cuckoo, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Masked Tityra, Yellow-thoated Vireo, Rufous-naped Wren, Clay-colored Robin, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Summer Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, and Rose-throated Becard.

A male Rose-throated Becard. I know, no rose throat- gotta go to Mexico to see that.

Overall, the U of Paz is nice birding and a great escape from the Central Valley if you have a free morning or afternoon and a rental car to get you there. I hope to bird there in the early morning sometime as I am sure it has a lot more to offer than what we saw during our short visit.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see puffbirds when birding in Costa Rica

The Bucconidae, or puffbirds, are one of the many families of birds that rank high on target lists of temperate zone birders on a birding trip to Costa Rica because they are just so darn different from birds of the north. A funny name for a funny bunch of birds, the large-headed, stout-bodied, tiny-footed puffbirds look like a cross between a Kookaburra and some odd stuffed animal won at the ring toss. Although they are probably easiest to see and most speciose in the forests of Amazonia, five puffbird species can also be encountered when birding Costa Rica. The five, feathered stars of this post are:

1. White-whiskered Puffbird

A male from the Trogon Trail near Achiote, Panama.

The White-whiskered Puffbird is the most common and frequently seen of the family when birding Costa Rica. A fairly common resident of humid lowland and foothill forests of both slopes, the White-whiskered Puffbird likes to trick neotropical, neophyte birders into thinking that it’s some sort of owl. One really can’t blame a birder for suspecting that the puffbird is an owl because the shape and coloration are actually a lot like a pygmy owl (and it also moves its tail back and forth like one). This species loves to lurk in the shady understory and usually makes its presence known with extremely high-pitched (and easily overlooked) vocalizations. Although they sound more like a baby bird or a strange bug, if you learn their calls, this will come in handy in looking for other similar sounding Malacoptila genus puffbirds elsewhere in the neotropics. This species is found at many sites when birding Costa Rica but is probably easiest at Carara. I also see it on most visits to Quebrada Gonzalez.

2. White-necked Puffbird

A White-necked Puffbird in the canopy at Carara National Park.

This pigeon-sized, monster-headed bird is a perennial favorite and rightly so. With its oversized beak and striking black and white plumage, the White-necked Puffbird gets my vote for being one of the coolest, widespread bird species of the neotropics. Unlike the White-whiskered Puffbird, when birding Costa Rica, you will have to look high up into the canopy of tall, lowland forest to this species. Like other puffbirds, it prefers to sally out and snatch large, juicy katydids, walking sticks, and lizards from the foliage after a long, immobile wait. This behavior doesn’t make the White-necked Puffbird very easy to see but at least means that it makes for a nice photography subject when spotted. Canopy towers significantly up your chances in seeing this bird but since such wonderful birding aids are strangely absent from Costa Rica, your best bet for seeing the White-necked Puffbird in Costa Rica is to keep an eye on the tree tops and scan the canopy whenever possible (such as when hillsides in areas of lowland forest are visible). Being familiar with the rather quiet, even-pitched, prolonged  trill given by the White-necked Puffbird also helps in tracking them down. This species is widespread in tall forest of the lowlands of both slopes but might be easiest at Carara and in the Golfo Dulce area.

3. Pied Puffbird

Taken along the La Selva entrance road.

Like a miniature White-necked, the Pied Puffbird is easily overlooked when birding because of its small size and loyalty to the puffbird doctrine of lethargic meditation. Fortunately, it is more vociferous than its brethren and gives a loud, easily recognized descending series of trills which at the least make you aware of their presence. They will sometimes perch on dead branches in the open which is nice because Pied Puffbirds can be very difficult to find when calling from the canopy vegetation. The Pied Puffbird is uncommon in Costa Rica but regularly found along the La Selva entrance road. It seems to prefer the edges of lowland forests of the Caribbean Slope. Outside of Costa Rica, the best place I have seen for Pied Puffbird was in Panama around Achiote.

4. White-fronted Nunbird

A bad yet identifiable image from Bijagua.

The nunbirds are striking, strange things with their large coral-colored bills and rollicking laughter-like vocalizations. More active and easier to see than the other puffbirds, they move through the sub-canopy and take large insects and small lizards from the vegetation with frequent sallies. Nunbirds in Costa Rica and elsewhere often forage with other medium-sized birds in mixed flocks and are common in regions with extensive, lowland rain forest. They apparently need large areas of forest to survive because this formerly common species of the Caribbean lowlands has become quite rare in Costa Rica and has all but disappeared from historically reliable sites such as La Selva. It still occurs as a rare resident in lowland forests near Rara Avis, at Selva Verde, at Laguna del Lagarto, Barbilla National Park, and in the forests of the Talamancan foothills near Limon. The best place I have seen for this species when birding in Costa Rica has been at Hitoy Cerere; a little visited reserve near Limon that has the best Caribbean Slope lowland forest I have seen in Costa Rica and is one of the only accessible sites where nunbirds are still common. Other sites in Costa Rica for White-fronted Nunbird are at Bijagua, some forests in the Arenal area, probably Tortuguero, and possibly in primary forests near Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo.

5. Lanceolated Monklet

Sorry, no photo for this one! I still need this species for my Costa Rica list despite it having been seen at Quebrada Gonzalez! This fact is testament to the rarity and difficulty of connecting with this species in Costa Rica. I have often whistled like one at Quebrada Gonzalez but have never gotten a response nor have I ever heard one there so I wonder of it is still present at that site. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because its small size and firm committment to the puffbird doctrine make it very easy to overlook. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, the Lancelated Monklet is typically found near streams in mossy forest of foothill and middle elevation sites. Although you can’t really expect to get this one while birding in Costa Rica, other regular sites for this species have been VIrgen del Socorro (no longer accessible), the Tuis river near Rancho Naturalista, and Tapanti National Park. It is definitely easier to see in Ecuador (Milpe, Silanche, and Bombuscaro where I have seen several), and in Peru (the Manu Road). Listen for its vocalization to locate this tough species- a series of high-pitched, upslurred notes.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Costa Rica Beaches Introduction lowlands

Manzanillo; an excellent, cheap Caribbean slope birding destination in Costa Rica

There are at least 5 distinct regional habitat types or ecosystems in Costa Rica; dry forest, middle elevation cloud forest, high elevation rain forest, Pacific slope lowland rain forest, and Caribbean slope lowland rain forest. Birding in this latter habitat type is especially exciting because it harbors ecosystems with the highest number of bird species in Costa Rica (around 400). Despite having birded in Costa Rica since 1992, I probably get just as excited as visiting birders do when the road through Braulio Carrillo National Park suddenly announces its exit from the steep mountains with a panoramic view of the Caribbean lowlands. Just as the feelings of anticipation and excitement never fail to spring forth upon entering this highly biodiverse region, the obvious deforestation on the lowland plain tempers my excitement with a sharp stab of reality that goes too deep to ignore. In these “modern”, overpopulated times, banana fields, pineapple plantations, and cattle pastures have replaced much of the forest in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. There are birds but instead of seeing a few hundred species in tall, incredible rain forest, birders might encounter 40 or so bird species in scrubby fields with isolated trees and even fewer among the bananas and pineapples. Birding in good, lowland rain forest is still possible but the heavy pressure upon the land has given birders very few options.

Pineapple farms- an avian desert.

The principle site most folks visit for their fix of Caribbean Slope birding in Costa Rica is at the “La Selva” biological station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. One of the easiest sites to visit (1.45 hours from San Jose), the good trails and facilities, and legendary reputation of La Selva keep it on the list of must see places when birding in Costa Rica. The birding is good with species such as Great Curassow, Great Potoo, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Semiplumbeous Hawk more easily seen at the station than elsewhere, but in reality, several species have sadly disappeared from or have become very rare in the forests of La Selva (Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, and most understory insectivores). Another disadvantage is that unless you pay close to $90 per person to stay in a rather basic bunk bed, you can only access the station on short, guided tours that cost $30-$40 per person. In that most of the birds at La Selva can be seen along the entrance road and around nearby hotels such as Selva Verde and El Gavilan, birders will do just as well or better by birding around their hotel, visiting Quebrada Gonzalez for a day, and taking one of La Selva’s guided walks rather than staying at the station itself. I am by no means saying that the birding at La Selva is bad (it’s still very good for a wide variety of bird species), just that birders should be aware that many formerly common, forest based species no longer occur at La Selva and that most of the birds that still occur can be seen elsewhere.

Another good option for lowland Caribbean Slope birding that is much further afield but well worth the visit is the Manzanillo-Gandoca Wildlife Refuge. Situated in the southeastern corner of Costa Rica, this little-visited, 12,000 acre (4 times the size of La Selva) reserve protects lowland rain forest and swamp forest, has no entrance fee, and has accommodations that range from inexpensive, basic lodging to costly resortish hotels. Since it is not a national park, there are people who live within the refuge (this includes the village of Manzanillo). Nevertheless, they don’t appear to have much of an impact upon the refuge itself according to my observations from this past weekend and the opinion of a local guide. The main drawbacks to Manzanillo are its distance from San Jose (4-4.5 hours drive) and that you can’t drink water from the tap (but plenty of bottled water soldin the village). I suppose the lack of general information for the refuge could also be a drawback but that makes it all the more exciting to explore in my opinion. In any case, there are a few guides for the refuge, one of the best for the area being Abel Bustamente. Although he told me he was a general naturalist guide rather than a strict birding guide, from what I saw, he knows the local birds well enough to guide visitors, probably knows about the wildlife of the refuge better than anyone, speaks English well, and is also personable. I don’t know how much he charges but here is his email if you are interested. He is also easy to find upon arrival at Manzanillo; just inquire at the house to the right of this sign before entering the village.

With the caveat that I was mostly guiding begining birders for a day and a half, and that we hardly entered into the primary forest of the refuge, I still have to say that my general impression of birding in Manzanillo was so good I would go back there in a heartbeat. The only other time I have been to Manzanillo was in 1994 and although I had good birding and a bunch of lifers on that first trip, the lack of infrastructure made it difficult to visit (I camped on the beach and battled mosquitoes on horribly mucky trails). Things have greatly improved since those early days with lodging to fit most budgets available in the village or along the road to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Our group stayed in Manzanillo at the aptly named Cabinas Manzanillo ($30 for a basic, clean double with fan). The service was fine, but best of all, they had a fruit feeder that attracted a variety of birds including Golden-hooded and many Passerini’s Tanagers

and flowering bushes that attracted Blue-chested Hummingbird. In fact, Manzanillo is the best place I have seen for this hummingbird species in Costa Rica.

Also in the village were many Pale-vented Pigeons, the usual host of edge species, a plethora of Gray-necked Wood Rails (you cannot miss this species here), Common Black Hawk, flyovers of parrots and parakeets, lots of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, White-lined Tanager, and more. Our best birds in the village were Green and Rufous Kingfisher and American Pygmy Kingfisher (sorry- no pics!). The Green and Rufous was a wonderful surprise-it was actually perched on a telephone wire above a small stream with thick vegetation near the hotel but flew off before I could get a shot. An hour later, I checked the same spot with the group, heard a ticking noise that the small neotropical kingfishers make and found a pygmy kingfisher instead! I was pretty happy with both of these since I needed them for my casual Big Year.

Outside of the village things were even better and we didn’t have to go far since primary and secondary forest, and abandoned cacao plantations that resemble primary forest surround Manzanillo. Birding along the main road out of town and on side roads (especially the one leading to a recreation center) were so birdy that we barely made progress. Migrants such as Eastern Wood Pewees and Red-eyed Vireos were the most common species along with good numbers of Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks that were bringing up the tail end of the fall raptor migration. Other, less numerous migrants were a hefty Peregrine Falcon that was casually making her way south, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Bay-breasted, Tennessee, Mourning, and Blue-winged Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the beach scrub.

A near constant movement of Barn Swallows, Bank Swallows, and Chimney Swifts also kept us busy although we were more interested in the residents. There were also plenty of those to look at with red flowering bushes attracting at least 6 hummingbird species and Bananaquits, and the old cocao plantations harboring Cinnamon Woodpecker, three toucan species, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Plain-colored, Passerini’s, Palm, and Blue-gray Tanagers, Western Slaty and Fasciated Antshrikes, Cocoa, Black-striped, and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Bay, Black-throated, and Stripe-breasted Wrens, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Northern Bentbill, Bright-rumped Attila, Cinnamon Becard, White-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Orange-billed Sparrow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, etc.

One of the best birds was Purple-throated Fruitcrow; we heard several and saw a few of this cotinga species that has become uncommon in many areas of Costa Rica. A rare cotinga we did not see but that Abel has seen in the area is Lovely Cotinga. Another good we saw that has become rare is Costa Rica was Yellow-tailed Oriole that visited the feeder at Cabins Manzanillo.

Although trogons are tough at this time of year because they don’t sing, we at least got perfect looks at this male Violaceous Trogon that perched on a wire in front of Abel’s house.

During the very brief amount of time spent on trails in the primary forest of the refuge, we also had Crested Guan, Little Tinamou, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, and Song Wren.

During our short visit to the area, since rather casual birding turned up 132 species without spending much time within the forest proper, I am pretty sure Manzanillo has a great deal of potential. I really can’t get back there soon enough not only because the place is very birdy in general but also because there has been so little birding done in Manzanillo. We missed out on night birding because of the rain but this site probably has both potoos, several owls, and Short-tailed Nighthawk. Manzanillo also has a great Caribbean restaurant, a soda that served us coffee at 5:30 A.M. with advance notice, and if you need to beef up your fish list, a coral reef just offshore. Getting there is pretty easy-just follow the signs from Limon to Puerto Viejo or take the bus (one a day).

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see Tinamous in Costa Rica

I wish I had photos of tinamous but other than pics of Undulated Tinamous from Tambopata, Peru, I haven’t been lucky enough to get adequate pics of any other of these goofy-looking, wonderful, feathered footballs (and by “footballs” I mean the somewhat cylindrical, all American “pigskin”). So, if you were hoping for lots of breathtaking imagery in this blog post, I am sorry to disappoint.

However, if you want to find out how to see tinamous in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) read on!

Tinamous as a family range from tropical Mexico all the way south to the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia. They stick to the ground in both humid and dry forests, thick second growth, above the treeline in the October-colored paramo, and in the grasslands of the southern cone. They are also pretty tough to see no matter where you go but at least love to vocalize with haunting songs that are easy on the ears; a boon for birders who happily make ticks on their life list with “heard onlys”. For those of us who need visual confirmation to add one more precious bird to our life lists, though, the ventriloquil songs of Tinamous can quickly turn from being magical and beautifully mysterious to being maddening and horribly frustrating. Although they may be rather “primitive” birds, tinamous aren’t exactly dumb. On the contrary, they must be pretty smart to have survived as a family for several million years and are very adept at remaining unseen. Like avian ninjas of the neotropics, tinamous start the day by taunting birders with their loud, beautiful songs, but then carefully slink through and hide in the undergrowth as soon as binocular-toting, khaki-wearing people hit the trails. After a tinamou-less day inside the forest, and usually while musing about tinamous over drinks right around 5 P.M., the football-shaped birds laugh at the birders with a flurry of vocalizations emanating from deep within the forest. Some tinamous think the joke is so good that they just can’t help themselves and insist on singing in the middle of the night. Really, its’ no wonder that so many people who live near tinamous want to shoot and eat them!

I don’t want to do tinamous any harm whatsoever, nor do I even mind their sneaky behavior. As Zen as I would like to believe myself to be, I have to admit that it’s easy to withstand the tremulous laughs of the tinamous because I am the one who gets the final guffaw. You see, I think that one must think and act like certain birds to see them. In the case of tinamous, this means taking the birding gloves off and getting downright sneaky. You can try playback with tinamous, but aside from over-harrassing the birds, they don’t respond so well. I admit that I have had some success with playback on tinamous, but don’t find it to be as useful of a tool as some other tricks to see these guys.

The most basic and best way to see more tinamous is to walk carefully, quietly, and slowly through the forest. Stop often, be patient, constantly scan the undergrowth, and keep an eye on the trail ahead. Most of all, do not talk, and remember to think like a ninja! Don’t worry about rushing; there are birds around and some might be looking at you. In addition to tinamous, I often end up seeing other ground birds this way such as quail-doves, antthrushes, and wood-quail.

Watch for food sources. Although tinamous mostly eat small creatures such as bugs and lizards, many will also take fallen fruit. Watch for tinamous at antswarms, below fruiting trees, and at spots where flowers that have fallen from the canopy may attract more insects.

Track down singing tinamous at dawn and dusk and bring a flashlight. Get out there when they sing- you might be able to sneak up on one close to the trail.

If the above advice pays off and you do see a tinamou in Costa Rica, at least their identification is pretty straightforward. The five species in Costa Rica are:

Great Tinamou : Common in lowland and foothill rainforest, if you see a brown tinamou with grayish legs that looks bigger than a chicken, it’s this one. Although found at a variety of sites, the most reliable places are Carara and La Selva because Great Tinamous tend to be more tame in these protected forests. It sings with deep, tremulous whistles.

Slaty-breasted Tinamou : Restricted to the northern half of the Caribbean slope, there aren’t too many places to see this species in Costa Rica because of extensive deforestation. To me, they don’t seem as common as they used to be at La Selva although they are still fairly reliable there. Other possibilities are Tortuguero, the forested areas around Laguna del Lagarto lodge, and around the Arenal area. Slaty-breasted Tinamous also occur at Rara Avis and Quebrada Gonzalez, although they are more common in the lowlands. This species might be easier in countries to the north. I recall seeing one or two at Palenque in Mexico. Listen for two very low-pitched whistles that are the song of this one and watch for the gray breast.

Thicket Tinamou : If you see a tinamou in the dry forest, it’s probably this one. Watch for the barring on the upperparts, rufescent tones of the plumage, and reddish legs. During the dry season, especially watch for it in gallery forest and listen for the low, whistled song.

Little Tinamou : The most common and at the same time most difficult to see tinamou in Costa Rica, you will know that one is near when you hear what sounds like a horse that has been sucking on helium balloons whinny from the thick, humid, second growth. Their preference for dense vegetation makes them very difficult to see. Peering into the forest edge might reveal one or you might see one foraging below the Rara Avis feeders or at shaded kitchen middens behind restaurants in the lowlands that are adjacent to thick second growth. The Little Tinamou is indeed little (American Robin-sized) and is mostly plain brown.

Highland Tinamou : This is a tinamou of the cloud forest and the one you are most likely to see along the trails at the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves. In fact, try as hard as you can to see it at these sites because the Highland Tinamou is more regularly seen here than other sites in its range. Watch for the lightly spotted back, and the gray head with rufous throat. It doesn’t not sing as much as other tinamous, nor does it sound anything like the other species in Costa Rica. Listen for the repeated, short, rather harsh notes that make up its song.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction middle elevations

Pocosol: Little known Costa Rica Birding Destination

“Pocosol” may have rhythm as far as words go, but except for the occasional vampire wannabee (or unfortunates who are extremely sensitive to ultraviolet rays), “Little Sunlight” doesn’t sound all that inviting. Despite being strongly diurnal in nature, the Birding Club of Costa Rica was nevertheless undaunted in planning and doing a trip to Pocosol and although we found that the place lived up to its name, we had a great time anyways. Actually, we were a lot more concerned about constant rain than the lack of sunlight and therefore chose to visit Pocosol in September, the driest month at this very humid, Caribbean foothill forest that gets drenched with more than 4 meters of rain per year. This strategy worked out in avoiding the agua but Pocosol still managed to stay true to its name with constant, heavy cloud cover. Even during the driest of times, this cloud cover apparently ensures a high level of humidity. Although the watery air made photography difficult (at least with my silly set-up), it makes Pocosol a haven for frogs. Even without doing a night walk or having any focus on amphibians, we couldn’t help but notice the large number of frogs that were calling and we saw several right around the cabins and on the trails without really searching for them.

Here is an undentified tree frog trying to hide on one of the dormitory windows.

It would have been cool to go herping but that required more than the three days that we dedicated to full time birding. We essentially started at the Pocosol office near the town of La Tigra and saw several of the usual suspects that do well in non-forest and forest-edge habitats. Birds such as Gray Hawk (a juvie that casually flapped by and got all the small birds giving high-pitched alarm calls), Ruddy Ground-Dove, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Groove-billed Ani, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Social Fly, Great Kiskadee, TK, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Passerini’s Tanager, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Common Tody-Flycatcher

While enjoying these common birds, the real treat was seeing hundreds of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, a smattering of Cave Swallows, and a few Purple Martins that were passing over in flock after flock on their way south. Much to our chagrin, this was not a preview of our Pocosol birding experience. We must have got unlucky and hit a a dry spell during fall migration because we saw hardly any warblers, vireos, or thrushes during our stay at Pocosol. One of our only warblers was this Black and White female.

The poor thing was probably exhausted as she attempted to forage and rested on the steps of the dormitory.

At least the resident species were around and the birding was pretty good overall. I admit that I expected more, but that’s the way it goes at high diversity sites; you just have to put in the time and effort if you want to see rare species and a couple days of birding just wasn’t enough for that trip. Sure, we identified something like 130 species but saw no hawk-eagles (and the habitat looked perfect), no Crested Eagle (has been seen here on occasion), dipped on Keel-billed Motmot (Pocosol is a good site for this rare species and means that I have to go back), Black-crested Coquette (we saw few of the flowering trees they prefer), and Lattice-tailed Trogon, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and Sharpbill (these three are never guaranteed anywhere).

In any case, most of these are more dependable at the far more accessible Quebrada Gonzalez. When I head for that elusive Motmot (which I may have heard and wrote off as Broad-billed Motmot-they sound very similar), I am going to spend a bit more time birding the road to Pocosol. This will be easy because although the place is just 3 hours from San Jose, it might be best to trot up there on a horse, hike the 13 kilometers from La Tigra, or motor up on an ATV. If you don’t go for one of those options, then be ready to test out the four wheel drive and clearance on your rental vehicle. The first nine kilometers are ok and pass near some nice habitat in the Penas Blancas river valley (where I am sure a morning trip would be great for birding). The other four kilometers also pass near or through birdy-looking areas but you might be too preoccupied with figuring out how to navigate the rocks and furrows to even raise your bins for a TK.

Scenery along the road to Pocosol.

Arriving to Pocosol.

As long as you have four-wheel drive, you will see immediately see why it was worth the efforts in getting here. All around the station is beautiful secondary and primary forest where birds like this Black-faced Grosbeak

and animals such as this Three-toed Sloth can appear at any time. We even saw a group of Spider Monkeys moving through the trees next to the station.

Some of the best birding was right from the balconies in the spacious dormitory building that gave beautiful views into the nearby and distant canopy. We often saw tanagers and other small birds from the balconies and frequently had good looks at Blue and Gold and Black and Yellow Tanagers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Although I kept scanning the forested hillside, I saw nary a cotinga and it wasn’t until our final morning that we saw a couple of birds perched out there; a White Hawk and adult King Vulture (always nice!).

View from the balcony.

From the balcony, the nearby lagoon at Pocosol was also visible if fairly birdless (a few Least Grebes and Green Kingfisher). More birds were seen along the trail that led to this crater lake and included small mixed flocks led by Golden-crowned Warblers, Tawny-throated Leaftosser foraging on the trail, Brown-billed Scythebill, and several Thicket Antpittas that called (laughed at us?) from the undergrowth. This hard to see but constantly heard species was pretty common at Pocosol. We heard them from dawn to dusk but only a few of us were lucky enough to glimpse one in the dense second growth they prefer. Trails around the lake passed through abandoned guava plantations and weren’t so good for birds but were great for peccaries. These wild pigs were so concentrated in this area that there must have also been a jaguar or at least a puma around which we of course didn’t see (although others have).

The lagoon at Pocosol.

The other main trail at Pocosol is a loop that goes up onto a ridge, passes by fumaroles, and passes through some of the best primary rain forest I have seen in Costa Rica . Since we did one quick walk here at the slow time of day (mid-morning), we didn’t see too much but still managed Song Wren, Slaty Antwren, heard Dull-mantled Antbird and Black-headed Antthrush, and got fair looks at one, large mixed flock led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager that held Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, most of the tanagers, and Russet Antshrike. The next time I go to Pocosol, I would love to spend a whole day just slowly birding that beautiful trail- it looked like the type of place where rare birds or a cat could show up at any moment.

The other area we birded was along the section of the entrance road closest to the station.

Habitat was more open with lots of Cecropias but there were still quite a few birds. The best were Rufous-winged and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers (fairly common at Pocosol), Immaculate Antbird (h), and great looks at…

Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

We didn’t get lucky with owls but the caretaker has seen Spectacled and Crested right around the station and I heard one Mottled Owl. Speaking of the caretaker, he did a great job and I would go back in a second as the service and food were good, the dormitory rooms comfortable, and the forest as peaceful as it was beautiful. Costs for visiting Pocosol are an affordable $45 per night that includes a bed and meals. They can also provide transportation up the road but charge a lot for it. For more information and making reservations, see http://www.acmcr.org/pocosol_biological_station.html

Categories
Introduction lowlands Pacific slope

Where to stay when birding Carara, Costa Rica; Cerro Lodge

I made a short trip to the Carara area this past Friday to scout the vicinity of Cerro Lodge, a new option for accommodation near the national park. From visiting their website, communicating with the owner, noting its proximity to Carara, and taking into account the habitats near Cerro Lodge, I had a hunch that these cabinas could finally be just the sort of place I have been waiting for as a good, moderately priced option for birders visiting Carara. Even with a short visit during non-birding hours (9-12), I could tell that my hunch was right. A problem with birding Carara has always been the limited number of options for accommodation near this top birding site. Don’t get me wrong, there are places to stay but they are pricey, horrible, or just not geared towards birders or ecotourists. The two main ecolodges that are geared towards birders, Villa Lapas and the Tarcol Lodge are, at well over $100 per person per night for lodging and meals, just absurdly pricey for Costa Rica.

At Villa Lapas (expensive number 1) the grounds and rooms are nice, the food and service good, and there is good birding on the grounds (including their canopy bridges), but you will see the same bird species on visits to the National Park. As for the Tarcol Lodge (expensive number 2) I have heard both positive and negative comments about their rooms, the food is good, and it is situated in a mangrove estuary with good birding although many of the aquatic and mangrove species that occur at the lodge can be seen on the mangrove boat trip or on your own. If you would rather not pay over $100 per person per night (in all fairness Villa Lapas sometimes has discounts during the wet season), I always felt that birders could see just as much and eat just as well by staying at a moderately priced hotel with comfortable, clean rooms and either taking meals there or dining at nearby sodas. The problem with this, however, was that the only moderately priced hotel near Carara was the basic “Hotel Carara” in Tarcoles village. Resembling a North American motel, although the rooms are ok and are sometimes offered at discounted prices, for not being located in particularly birdy habitat, the $70 rooms just never seemed worth it. I don’t think dining at their restaurant is worth it either. The small fish pond, pleasant decor, “relaxing” new age elevatorish music, and seaside location will never be enough to overcome the shortcomings of their small menu with overpriced, mediochre food that sours the dining experience like a lemon flavored slap in the face.

There have always been cheaper digs available at quiet, ramshackle cabinas along the beach just north of Tarcoles, but unless you are filiming a horror movie, on a scorpion hunt, or don’t mind sharing the place with cockroaches, then you probably shouldn’t stay there. Don’t be fooled by the $30 rooms offered at the Crocodile restaurant either (the one at the bridge on the highway). Those are the worse I have stayed at in Costa Rica mostly because upon opening the bathroom door, I was greeted by a small bat who was squinting and squeeking at me from the grimy floor. He was probably pleading for help out of that dirty place and after evicting (or maybe saving) him, I became honestly concerned about his bloodsucking cousins attacking me in the night after seeing the large hole in the bathroom ceiling combined with the fact that there were horses and cattle in back of the place that were probably fed upon by vampire bats on a regular basis. At least I didn’t have to worry about spending any time in the bathroom since nary a drip came out of the naked pipe that protruded from the wall. Although the room was so dirty that not showering seemed to be part of the theme, unless you are an adamant follower of Pigpen, I wouldn’t call that a plus. The bed was also uncomfortable, the fan didn’t really work, nor was the birding good at the Cabinas Crocodilos so do yourself a favor and don’t ever stay there even if the restaurant is ok.

Fortunately, two moderately priced options have become available near Carara! Although they are too far to walk to the park entrance, no present or future hotel will ever be close enough to the entrance for most folks to get there by foot because the HQ it is several kilometers from the limits of the park on a busy highway. The cheaper but noisier and less birdy option is the Cabinas Vasija (or something like that). Found along the main highway about 15 minutes from Carara on the east side of the road, they charge around $20 for basic, dingy rooms and also have a cheap restaurant on site. Being located along the highway though ensures that earplugs will be necessary for a good night’s sleep. The birding in the vicinity (especially along the road towards the river), however, is OK for dry forest and open country species.

Although more expensive, ($50 single, $70 double room), in my opinion, Cerro Lodge is the place I and other birders have been waiting for. This price includes all taxes and breakfast served from 5:30 A.M. at a restaurant that looks into the canopy of trees that host, among dozens of other bird species, Scarlet Macaws. Although these spectacular parrots move around in search of seeding and fruiting trees and thus might not visit the trees at the Cerro Lodge restaurant at all times of the year, they certainly do in October. It was especially interesting to note that the macaws fed upon the seeds of Teak (an introduced species) in addition to foraging at the more typical “Almendra” trees.

The view from the restaurant.

The rooms are in six, clean, pleasant cabinas equipped with ceiling fans and a bathroom that is partly outdoors (in a good way).

Plenty of heliconias, Verbenia, and other flowering plants were attracting hundreds of butterflies during our visit and should also attract hummingbirds. Although we saw few of these glittering, hyperactive sprites, we were told that they sometimes visit the flowers that graced the tables of the restaurant. More exciting was  hearing about the pair of owls that make nightly visits to the light in their parking area. Although I wasn’t there at night, I am betting that they are Black and White or Striped Owls.

There is a trail on the Cerro Lodge property (a small, working farm) that passes through pasture, dry, scrubby habitat, and streams with moister, taller riparian growth. Birding in similar habitats is also possible along the quiet, 3 kilometer entrance road, and along the 4 kilometers of this same road that continues past Cerro Lodge and accesses dry forest, small wetlands, provides distant views of the Tarcol River. There is no traffic of note along these roads which helps make Cerro Lodge a very quiet, tranquil place.

Being there at the wrong time of day for birding, we didn’t see very much but still managed around 30 of the 150 species recorded at Cerro Lodge. Our best birds being Scarlet Macaws, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tityra, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Lesser Ground Cuckoo (h), Violaceous Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. In that some of these birds are signature dry forest species, combining the drier habitats around Cerro Lodge with the rain forests of Carara should result in a quite a large list of species.

This Lineated Woodpecker loved its dead, palm trunk!

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are a common, open country species in Costa Rica.

The Pacific Slope subspecies of the Variable Seedeater.

This is why these used to be known as Black-bellied Tree-Ducks.

Another nice thing about Cerro Lodge is that birders who feel like eating outside of the hotel can do so at a good soda just across the highway from the entrance road. The entrance to Carara National Park is ten minutes further along the highway from this point.

To get to Cerro Lodge, just follow the main road to Carara and Jaco and watch for the large Cerro Lodge sign at the entrance road about 10-15 minutes after Orotina.  From there it is 3 kilometers up a well graded dirt road to the best option for birders and aficionados of tropical tranquility who have Carara National Park on their itineraries. I can’t wait to go back and seriously bird the place at dawn, during the evening, and at night.

Categories
el nino weather

An El Nino year for Costa Rica

In July, meteorogists made the official announcement that El Nino is back for another visit to the Pacific Coast of Latin America. Termed “El Nino” (the child) because this weather phenomenon typically occurs around Christmas (in Latin America, this same term is often used in reference to the arrival of baby Jesus), this is one kid that farmers in Guanacaste, Costa Rica don’t want around. Although the warm waters associated with El Nino bring rains to some areas of South America, Costa Rica typically suffers from droughts in the Pacific Northwest and the Central Valley. Instead of the daily afternoon rains that people are used to and expect at this time of year, the hot, tropical sun beats down upon the zinc roofs day after day. While worried Ticos in the Central Valley have been talking about the dry season that never stopped, farmers in Guanacaste have become frantic as important crops such as rice and beans are lost due to the lack of deperately needed downpours. Farmers in the highlands, though, have benefited from the hot, dry weather. Their crops of potatoes and onions that typically suffer from fungis and molds that proliferate in wet conditions have done very well.

As far as the birds go, I suspect that although populations of most species in the Central Valley and Guanacaste probably won’t have a very successful breeding season, this won’t be very noticeable to the visiting birder as one bad breeding season won’t affect bird populations too much. Although they will unfortunately be stressed, birds might also be easier to watch in the Pacific Northwest as they concentrate around scarce, wet areas. Whereas birds in the dry forest would typically be benefitting from the annual “greening” of the vegetation, with the lack of rains, plants not found in riparian corridors or watered areas such as golf courses or hotel gardens may be too stressed to produce flowers and fruits. This will probably affect frugivores such as trogons, manakins, and bellbirds to the point that we may see some of these as vagrants to other parts of Costa Rica or could see more around hotels planted with fruiting trees.

As opposed to the Pacific Slope, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica has not been affected by El Nino and has actually experienced higher rain than normal. I personally hope that the rains on the other side of the mountains take a break this weekend when I head to Pocosol to co-guide a BCCR trip. Watch for a report about that place! Rarely visited, it has some of the wildest forests on the Caribbean Slope. Although I won’t be surprised if we end up birding from the shelter of the biological station during constant rain, we will still see some good stuff in any case. Lovely Cotinga? Keel-billed Motmot? Tawny-faced Quail? All of these occur there although now that I have mentioned them, I have assured that I won’t see them. Well, maybe someone else in the group will.

For birders who decided to risk a visit during normally rainy October and November, they are in luck because the El Nino of 2009 is expected to last until 2010 with lighter rain than normal during those normally extremely wet months.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding La Georgina, Costa Rica

Most birders visiting Costa Rica seem to get their fix of high elevation Talamancan endemics at Savegre Lodge or somewhere in the Dota Valley. I may have done the same when I did my first high elevation Talamancan birding in Costa Rica in 1994, but as is common with wandering, young birders (colloquially referred to as bird bums), I couldn’t afford to stay there. In fact, I couldn’t afford to stay almost anywhere. I rode the bus, hitched, camped out, and stayed in cheap hotels where the walls were so thin that guests would simply communicate with friends in other rooms by yelling back and forth. If conversations would have been interesting, perhaps I would have joined in. I just stuffed tissue papaer into my ears though because they usually went something like this:

“Hey Julio! What are you doing?”

“Nothing Raul!! What about you!!?”

“Nothing Julio! Lets go drink some beers!!!”

“Ok Raul!! Do you want to drink them here or in the park!?!”

“Hey Julio!! The shower doesn’t work!!”

“Ha! Maybe we can stand in the rain!!! If we are drunk we won’t feel it!!! Ha ha ha!”

The noise level of cheaper hotels in latin America is often the biggest problem (well, not counting the bed bugs that attacked a friend of mine and I during our stay at a $3 per night doozy in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui). On one particularly noise-ridden night in Buenaventura, Ecuador, I was so fed up with the audio intrusion that I was going to buy the loudest noisemaker I could find, like say a stick of dynamite, and set it off outside the door of my noisy neighbor at 5 A.M. My neighbor lucked out though, because the birding is so incredibaly good at the Buenaventura Reserve that I just didn’t get the chance to look for large caliber firecrackers.

In any case, my first experiences at night in the high Talamancas were wonderful in all respects because I spent them camping out in the fantastic forests along the trail up to Chirripo (camping along the trail isn’t actually allowed and I don’t think you could get away with it nowadays which is a shame because it was the best high elevation birding I have ever had in Costa Rica). I saw nearly every highland specialty including the only time I have ever seen Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Since then, most of my visits to the high Talamancas have been to the easiest, most accessible, budget site for high elevation birding in Costa Rica; La Georgina.

Situated along on the east side of the highway that connects San Jose to San Isidro de el General, La Georgina is a diner/truck-stop/cheap place to stay with excellent birding about 10 minutes after the pass on Cerro de la Muerte. The pass can be recognized by it being the most extensive area above the treeline-if you don’t visit Irazu, then this is where you stop for Volcano Junco. At 10,000 feet (slightly over 3,000 meters), La Georgina is pretty high up there for Costa Rica and you will feel it both in terms of the lack of oxygen and darn cold nights. It also rains quite a bit up there at La Georgina, as it did the other day when I made a day trip to the place despite the clear forecast. Although the foggy, misty weather pretty much foiled most of my attempts at bird photography, it was still nice to check the place out and especially nice to see that La Georgina has improved as a birding site. Unlike so many other birding sites in Costa Rica, La Georgina does not charge to use their trails, and still charges reasonable rates for lodging. The very friendly, humble family that runs the place still serves good, local food and the birding is still very good if not better than in the past.

The dining area provides perfect views of Fiery-throated and Magnificent hummingbirds that visit their feeders.

Extensive gardens have been planted that host Volcano Hummingbird, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Large-footed Finch. This young Large-footed Finch was nice and camera friendly.

Two “cabinas” have been built that overlook the gardens and nearby forests. Lodging costs $30 per night. I believe this is per cabina and not per person although I am not 100% sure. It would be very interesting to stay the night here and try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Almost no one has seen or heard this bird in Costa Rica; a subject that Robert Dean and I were discussing recently. We wondered if it might be related to these owls only vocalizing during a particular season, or possibly that they occur higher than the Savegre Valley (where most birders spend the night). If our second hypothesis explains the dearth of sightings of this bird, perhaps birders who stay at the cabinas at La Georgina can test this. In addition to the cabinas, there are $10 rooms available at the diner. Although the walls are thin, I think the few guests that stay here are too cold to yell to each other.

About the only disadvantage of La Georgina is that one has to be fairly physically fit to walk their trails. Although the paths aren’t too steep, there is enough of a grade to make to make the going a bit rough, especially because of the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet above sea level. Birders (and hikers) who are fit enough to do these trails, though, should definitely bird them. I have never seen a place where Zeledonias were so common. I must have heard and easily seen (sans binos mind you) at least 10 while walking the main trail.

The trails at La Georgina mostly cut through old growth, temperate zone rain forest. Bamboo is prevalent in the understory and the trails go near a few streams. A testament to the high quality of these forests were the tapir tracks found along the trail. Essentially, this area is an extension of the huge La Amistad Park as the roadless, peopleless forests of La Georgina are connected to those of the park. They don’t get birded much although probably harbor all the high elevation specialties.

Tapir tracks

As far as birds go, along the trails of La Georgina on that day, my best find was Costa-Rican Pygmy-Owl.

Like the one I had last year on Irazu, I found it by virtue of a pair of upset Fiery-throated Hummingbirds that were mobbing it. Just after the owl, I had a male Resplendent Quetzal. Unfortunately though, he was a lot more camera shy than the owl. Like other forested areas of the high Talamancas, Resplendent Quetzal is fairly common at La Georgina. Come to think of it, I have never missed this species when walking their trails.

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird that was happily relaxing in the gardens of La Georgina far away from any Pygmy Owls.

I also had Black Guan, Band-tailed Pigeon, many Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, a few Gray-tailed Mountain-Gems, Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous, Gray-breasted Wood, and Timberline Wrens, Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Hopefully I will get back to La Georgina sometime soon to spend the night and try for a mega lifer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

Categories
big year Birding Costa Rica

A Big Year in Costa Rica

In the birding world, many of us are a list obsessed bunch. The lists other people use are temporal and pretty much inconsequential; a nearly forgotten, crumpled note that mentions milk, bread, butter, flour, cereal, mahi mahi (for those of us lucky enough to reside where this fish is standard) and other essentials like snickers bars and salt.
For birders, though, lists often play a principle role in one’s life. Lists of birds that is. Aside from the all important life list,  there is also the yard list, the wish list (similar to but not quite the target list), the day list, the state list, the country list and so on. There is also a year list. This latter list is not to be confused with a BIG YEAR though; the endeavor or madness that I am doing/carrying out/attempting in 2009. Oh yes, I need to clarify that I am doing a BIG YEAR  for Costa Rica. That is to say, I am striving to identify as many species as possible within the territorial boundaries of Costa Rica. This is different from a year list because that would be simply keeping track of all species identified.

To truly be recognized as a BIG YEAR, I think one has to make serious efforts to see EVERYTHING. For example, if that means that I will have to waltz around in the middle of the cold and windy nights in the high mountains while monotonously whistling like an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl then so be it! One has to do what one has to do for a BIG DAY or BIG YEAR. It’s going to be especially challenging because I work a weekday job in a birdless environment (birds have not evolved to occupy office space) and most of all because I have a 6 month old daughter but I am giving it a shot. “Giving it a shot” means that I might not only have to do that waltzing and Saw-whet sans spots whistling but also take a trip to the Osa, bird near the Panamanian border on both slopes, hit Palo Verde, Cano Negro and Guanacaste, bird migrant hot spots, probably take the Puntarenas ferry several times and carry out other as of yet unknown birding missions. At least Costa Rica is a small country and you can get to just about everywhere. One thing I won’t do is carouse around the open ocean chumming for pelagics. Pelagic birds are super cool but seasickness isn’t and I get roaringly sick out on those darn waves. At least I can handle that Puntarenas ferry though and that will probably give me a few pelagic or semi-pelagic birds.

Although I haven’t been able to get out too much as of late February (and I need to because its going to rain from May to December), I have broke 300 species. My best bird so far is Tiny Hawk! This a good one because even though they are around, you can hardly plan on seeing one. I got lucky with a glimpse along the La Selva entrance road. We were attempting to locate some hidden Tanagers that were giving alarm calls when this thrush sized bird with blunt head and tail barring burst out of a palm to fly across the road and out of site. Yep, typical Tiny Hawk experience.

I hope to up the BIG YEAR list soon with some rare migrants along the Caribbean coast during March and April. I will keep you updated with that and good birding to all in 2009!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands Pacific slope

Costa Rican Owls: Black and White Owl (Ciccaba nigrolineata)

All owls are very cool birds. If Fonzie was a birder he would give a resounding two thumbs up, “Aaaeeyyyyy” for Owls. They are way up there on the bird coolness scale because:

1. They are raptors: All raptors are automatically cool; even Common Buzzards and Red-tailed Hawks.

2. They are nocturnal.

3. They can see in the dark.

4. We hardly even see them even where they are common.

Of the 16 species of owls that have occurred in Costa Rica, the Black and White Owl is one of the most stunning. Like its name says, it is as black and white as an oreo cookie. It also has an orange bill and legs to brighten thing up.

They occur from the lowlands to middle elevations (1,500 meters) and are mostly found in humid forested areas. A bird of the forest interior as well as forest edge, their distribution is probably limited for the most part by availability of large trees for nesting and their main food source; large insects bats. Here is a link to an article that describes how Black and White and the related, similar sized Mottled Owl avoid competition by food source. In short, the Mottled takes rodents while the Black and White sticks to bats. Black and White Owls are sometimes seen around streetlights located near primary forest or old second growth. They might prefer microhabitats where it is easier to catch bats. Places like tree-fall gaps and forest edge. In fact, the only places I have heard and seen Black and White Owls at night are in just such situations such as the soccer field and buildings at OTS (open areas surrounded by old second growth), and at streetlights adjacent to old second growth at nearby Selva Verde and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. Where I have seen Black and White during the day, though, is where 1,000s of people (birders and non-birders alike) have seen Black and White Owls; at the main plaza in Orotina.

The plaza owls and their offspring could be the most frequently seen owls in the world.

Orotina is a small town in the hot, humid foothills of the central Pacific slope. Not far from Carara, the surrounding area hosts some humid forest and dry forest species. The main plaza is like other plazas in Costa Rican towns; busy and noisy, a meeting place for everyone in town under the shade of several large trees.

Despite all of the people activity, it has also hosted a pair of Black and White Owls since at least 1998. They can be found roosting in any of the trees and can be surprisingly difficult to find. The quickest way to see them is to ask the plaza ice cream vendor, “Victor Hugo”. He may have been the first person to find the owls in the plaza. He usually knows where they are and might also attempt to sell you real estate as happened on my past visit. Even if you don’t want to buy land and become an Orotinian, at least buy an ice cream or “shaved ice” from him if he shows you the owls.