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Birding Costa Rica

New Citizen Science Project in Costa Rica to Help Monitor Bird Populations

In North America and Europe, breeding bird surveys have played a huge role in estimating the population sizes and distributions of local avifauna. In providing a fairly accurate picture of the numbers and types of birds that occur in a given area, these surveys have been of tremendous importance for conservation and protection of bird species. Over time, they also show where, and the extent to which, bird populations change. That said, I realize that this is old news for most birders in North America and Europe. In fact, there’s a good chance that many people reading this have helped to generate data as a part of breeding bird surveys because most of these bird counts are carried out by citizen scientists.

Trained biologists and ornithologists also carry out many of these counts but birdwatchers from other walks of life form the backbone of breeding bird surveys. I had often wondered if the same sort of annual counting happened in Costa Rica but I haven’t found any information to indicate that was the case. Although bird counts at certain sites and for certain groups of birds (such as waterfowl and waders) are undertaken by both the Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica and the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica, there didn’t appear to be anything akin to the large scale citizen science breeding bird surveys that happen in other parts of the world. Christmas counts are done at many sites and are certainly important but the country was lacking surveys done on a much broader scale. From what I have seen, the closest thing to date that has generated data about bird populations in Costa Rica has been eBird. This most wonderful of interactive websites already provides valuable information on bird sightings in Costa Rica but has yet to be fully adopted by the local birding community. Since much of the data in eBird is added by people who visit the country for a birding tour, the sites that receive the most attention are those that already happen to be  heavily visited and well known.

Hopefully, more local birders will use eBird but in the meantime, the Asociacion Ornitologia de Costa Rica (AOCR) has started up a citizen science project aimed at counting and assessing populations of resident species. In other words, Costa Rica finally has a breeding bird survey project! Although several species of birds in Costa Rica nest at various times of the year, a large percentage breed at the start of the wet season. For this reason, the counting period runs from May 15th to June 30th and follows protocols similar to other breeding bird surveys. Spearheaded by bird list coordinator Gerardo Obando, this projec encourages birdwatchers who reside in Costa Rica to get out there and do point counts in their gardens as well as along any number of routes. Participants set up their counting areas with GPS coordinates and once established, each of these is shown on a Google map to avoid overlap with other counts.

Hopefully, enough people will get involved to aid in providing a more accurate assessment of the Costa Rican avifauna. I already have a few routes in mind and will be blogging about my count experiences in June.

It will be interesting to see how many Black-capped Flycatchers turn up at high elevation sites,

if anyone does counts where Volcano Juncos live,

and how many thousands of Barred Antshrikes get reported!

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Irazu, Costa Rica birding in the mist this past weekend

Recent heavy rains have blocked access to much of the Pacific Coast, the only birders seeing quetzals on Cerro de la Muerte for the next week or so will be those who trek up the “mountain of death” on foot, and collapsed bridges have even isolated the Guanacaste beaches of Samara and Nosara.

This past weekend didn’t seem like the ideal time to go birding in Costa Rica (and it wasn’t) but since I hadn’t heard of any landslides on Volcan Irazu, I didn’t cancel a Saturday guiding stint up on this massive volcano that overlooks the Central Valley from the east.

The weather was looking nice around San Jose but sure enough, when we approached Cartago, misty surroundings reminded us that we had essentially entered a slightly different climatic zone. I hoped that the foggy air would clear the higher we went, that maybe we could break on through the wet blanket as we ascended the mountain. It was pretty misty at our first stop at a ravine that hosted remnant cloud forest but not too thick to watch Volcano Hummingbirds zipping around, Band-tailed Pigeons alighting in the trees, Slaty Flowerpiercer doing its usual, hyperactive, nectar robbing thing, and Common Bush-Tanagers sharing the undergrowth with Wilson’s Warblers (the bush-tanagers here at the upper limits of their range). Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Flame-colored Tanagers also called within earshot but playback couldn’t entice them to come out and play.

Further up, at our next stop near the Nochebuena Restaurant, we didn’t exactly leave the clouds behind but we at least seemed to have climbed above the main strata of saturated air. Tame, Sooty Robins greeted us from the tops of purple fruiting bushes.

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Sooty Robins are big, common, high elevation thrushes endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes sounded like Hermit Thrushes as they sang from the undergrowth but contrary to their usually ultra-tame attitude, remained hidden. Band-tailed Pigeons were especially common and gave us nice looks as they fed on acorns that had fallen to the ground from awesome, old growth oaks. This is a commonly seen species when birding Costa Rica but I always love getting good looks at them and wish they could come to my backyard (even though I know that’s not going to happen). I admit that I have this thing for Band-tailed Pigeons and have thought of three possible explanations:

1. As a kid in Niagara Falls, New York, I associated them with the wild, exotic, unreachable coniferous forests of the American west. This meant that they hung out with Steller’s Jays, Grizzly Bears, Elk, Cougars, and Jeremiah Johnson which in turn meant that they were on the uber cool end of the awesomeness spectrum.

2. They aren’t Rock Pigeons. As iridescent as the necks of Rock Pigeons (aka Rock Doves) could be, they were just too common to be cool and were black-listed by the dreaded “introduced” label.

3. I am crazy about birds. I just like watching birds no matter what my binoculars bring into focus so this could be a simple explanation.

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A young Band-tailed Pigeon looking kind of grotesque as it chokes down an acorn.

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I love the dark green nape!

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This one was hanging out in the same tree as a pair of a much more exciting bird for most people…

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a Resplendent Quetzal!

First we saw a female who was nice enough to provide us with stellar scope views before she swooped off into an oak grove across the street. I figured this was my cue to use the outdoor facilities and of course as soon as I stepped behind a tree, the unmistakable, long-trained silhouette of a male quetzal appeared over the road as it flew into the same tree where the female had been. A closer look at said tree showed why is was the favored hangout of those Irazu quetzals. It was a Laureacae species or “wild avocado” and its branches were dripping with the energy rich fruits that quetzals probably require for survival.

Running back across the road, the vivid emerald green of the male was immediately apparent and we enjoyed scope views of this always fantastic bird for 15 minutes while Acorn Woodpeckers laughed from the treetops and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers flitted through nearby vegetation.

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It was also nice to see Black-capped Flycatchers, an easily identifiable Empidonax only found in high elevation forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

Once the quetzals had retreated back into the shade of high elevation oaks, we made our up to the treeline habitats of Irazu National Park. Unfortunately, the fog had come back with proverbial pea-soup vengeance and although we could walk over the ashy ground to the very edge of the crater, we couldn’t see any further than a couple hundred feet at the most. Thus, the green lagoon at the bottom of the crater was hidden from view but at least (since we were birding and not really volcanoing) we got Volcano Juncos!

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Volcano Junco, the fierce looking denizen of paramo habitats in eastern Costa Rica and western Panama.

As is typical for high elevation birds in many areas of the world, they were tame, rather fearless, and had no qualms about picking at food scraps left over by tourists. Heck, they and the local Rufous-collared Sparrows even jumped right into the trash bins!

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Hmmm, what did the tourists leave for my lunch today!

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A Rufous-collared Sparrow getting ready to jump into the garbage.

Visibility worsened as the mist turned into a light, horizontally falling (blowing?) rain and so we left the crater area and took a side road just outside of the park limits to hopefully see Large-footed Finch and Timberline Wren. We got more excellent looks at juncos and heard a distant finch with an extra large shoe size but there was nary a peep nor rustle of vegetation from any Timberline Wrens so we slowly drove back down to the Nochebuena Restaurant with the hope that the fog would dissipate.

The restaurant doesn’t exactly have an extensive menu, but it’s good enough, is the coziest place on Irazu, and has hummingbird feeders that can be watched from some of the tables. We of course, sat at the best spot in the house for the hummingbird spectacle and studied four of the species that occur high up on Irazu; Green Violetear, the tiny Volcano Hummingbird, needle-billed Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and the giganto Magnificent Hummingbird.Birding Costa Rica

A female or young male Volcano Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a female Magnificent Hummingbird.

After lunch, a brief respite from the mist got us one of our best birds of the day. A bunch of scolding birds had gotten our attention and as we walked towards them, I noticed a Sooty Robin make a swooping dive at a fence post. A closer look showed that it was more concerned with what was sitting on the fence post, a brown lump that turned into a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl when viewed through the scope!

It took off before I could digitally capture it but at least we all got perfect looks at this uncommon, highland endemic. Interestingly enough, this was in the same spot where I got my lifer Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl in 2008.

Aside from more Band-tailed Pigeons walking around, not much else showed so we went further down the mountain in search of sunshine and birds. Incredibly, we did manage to find the only sunny spot on Irazu and the rich undergrowth also made it excellent for birds!

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The one sunny spot on Irazu.

Thanks to the good visibility, good habitat, and good luck, we watched a mixed flock near this area for around 40 minutes. A bunch of new birds for the day and others we had already seen showed up in the form of Yellow-winged Vireos (very kingletish and common on Irazu), Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-thighed Finch, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Mountain Elaenia, Wilson’s Warbler, and Black-cheeked Warbler.

These were our last birds for the day because below the sunny spot, the fog was so thick we could barely make out the road until we had descended the mountain and left the Cartago area. The weather was a bit trying but at least we didn’t have to contend with driving rain, landslides or washed out bridges. Since we also had perfect views of Resplendent Quetzal and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, I daresay that we had a better day of birding than most birders in Costa Rica on November 6th, 2010.

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A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.


We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.