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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Hummingbirds

Black-crested Coquette at El Tapir

El Tapir is a defunct butterfly garden (how many sites have that claim to fame?) a couple kilometers past Quebrada Gonzalez on the right side of the highway as you head towards Limon. During the latter 90s it received a fair number of visitors and cabins were being built to provide accommodation for excited, happy birders. I don’t know if that was actually the goal for the cabins but excited, happy birders would have certainly been the outcome. The place is easily accessible, has the full complement of foothill specialties, good populations of other birds that require primary forest, acts as a good lookout for raptors, and has a bunch of Porterweed bushes that are one of the few reliable sites in the country Snowcap.

However, to visiting birders great misfortune, the cabins were never finished and El Tapir was let to its own devices. The buildings are falling down, you would never know that a beautiful little, enclosed butterfly garden used to grace the entrance to the place, and there aren’t any more souvenirs for sale. Nevertheless, despite it’s defunct appearance, El Tapir can still be visited, there are a few trails through the forest, and hummingbirds still show up at the Porterweed bushes. Many of those magic flowering hedges have been cleared from the garden for unknown reasons and this has diminished the numbers of hummingbirds that show up but the place still sees visits by most of the expected species.

This past Sunday, while guiding at El Tapir, we were entertained by one of the more uncommon hummingbird species to visit the garden, an exquisite male Black-crested Coquette. It came to one of the flowering Porterweed bushes near the caretaker’s house and he let us know every time it made an appearance. It buzzed in low like a bumblebee for fantastic, close looks…

Black-crested Coquette is so small that it can just about hide behind a Porterweed stem!


It slowly moved into view and showed off its fine-plumed crest.

Neither common, nor rare, like so many other tropical bird species with low density populations, the Black-crested Coquette is perhaps best described as “uncommon”. This means that they are probably in the neighborhood when visiting their habitat but could easily escape detection if you don’t find the right type of flowering trees. Other factors that make it that much more difficult to locate this species are their tendency to move up and down slope in search of food and their naturally inconspicuous behavior that aids them in poaching nectar from flowers in the territories of other, larger, nastier hummingbirds.

I don’t see this species that often at El Tapir so don’t be surprised if you go birding there and miss it. However, even if you miss the coquette, consolation prizes often come in the form of Snowcap, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Thorntail, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Violet-crowned Woodnymph. You might also run into some good mixed flocks, pick up foothill birds in the forest, see King Vulture, and even run into a tapir! On Sunday, we had all of the hummingbirds listed above along with White-necked Jacobin and Purple-crowned Fairy. A sunny day made for pretty quiet birding inside the forest but we still managed to see Spotted Antbird (also heard Bicolored and Ocellated), Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Speckled Tanager, and King Vulture.

If you do visit El Tapir, just ask the caretaker if you can enter and pay him $5 per person. On a side note, the forest looked much drier than normal this past week and that could be why we picked up a few ticks so put on the sulfur powder and wear rubber boots!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Hummingbirds

Three coquettes seen on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica?

Coquettes are these tiny, insect-like hummingbirds that are strong contenders for being the most exquisite group of birds on Earth. The males in particular, with their incredibly ornate tufts and crests, remind me of glass figurines of hummingbirds crafted by someone with a fearless imagination and tendency towards extravagance, or perhaps jeweled pendants fabricated by an artist who has a thing for wispy plumes.

The group as a whole (along with their relatives, the Thorntails) just look unbelievable and so of course they are among the most wanted of hummingbird species. As is common with many bird species that elicit gasps when viewing their illustrations in a field guide, however, coquettes are (sigh) also among the least guaranteed of hummingbird species. I think one or two species in Peru and Brazil grace feeders with their presence but none of the three species that have been identified in Costa Rica have developed a taste for sugar water.

In addition to their disenchantment with “feeder juice”, there are three other reasons I can think of to explain the difficulty in seeing coquettes:

1. They are inconspicuous and bug-like by nature. Seriously, when they fly around, they resemble a slow and steady bumblebee or other fat, largish insect. This is probably no coincidence because such a strategy likely allows them to sneak into flower patches that are viciously guarded by larger hummingbirds. Thus it pays to check out chunky bugs seen flying around when birding Costa Rica. They might turn into coquettes when viewed through binoculars and if not, well there’s a lot of super cool looking insects in Costa Rica in any case.

2. Coquettes feed on smaller flowers, many of which occur way up in the tops of trees. Even if you do see a coquette as it feeds in the canopy, you will probably pass it off as a bug because it will look like one 100 feet above where you are standing. On a more positive note, coquettes also feed on Stachytarpheta bushes at eye level. Not always, but watch some Porterweed long enough in the right place and you have a fair chance of seeing one.

3. Coquettes move around in search of their favorite flowering trees. How could we not expect persnickety behavior from such flamboyant creatures? The three coquette species of Costa Rica move up and down slope and who knows where else to get their fill of select, vintage nectars. It is perhaps this fact that presents the biggest challenge to seeing them. Little is known about their movements in Costa Rica except that they might be present for a time at one site and then who knows where the following week.

So, they are tough to find but how about some information about each species? The three coquettes that have occurred in Costa Rica are the Black-crested Coquette, White-crested Coquette, and the Rufous-crested Coquette.

The one that is most regularly seen when birding Costa Rica is the Black-crested Coquette. Buzzing around the humid forests of the Caribbean Slope from southeastern Mexico to Central Costa Rica, this creature can show up at a number of sites but appears to be most regularly seen in Costa Rica at foothill and middle elevations south to about Rancho Naturalista (a good site for them). The other, easiest site for this bird when birding Costa Rica is the Arenal area. They could be seasonal there but birders have an excellent chance of connecting with this species by watching the flowering bushes around the Arenal Observatory Lodge or entrance to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. El Tapir just outside of Braulio Carrillo Park has also been a regular site for the Black-crested Coquette as was Virgen del Socorro.

The White-crested Coquette looks particularly stunning but it’s not easy despite only being found from Carara south to western Panama. It didn’t seem like they were very tough to find when I was birding the Golfo Dulce and Osa Peninsula some years ago but that may have been a fluke. I recall seeing them pretty easily around patches of flowering Inga. species trees and have even had them at flowering balsas. I suspect that southwestern Costa Rica is still the most reliable area for this species when birding Costa Rica (the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre often know where to find them) although it occurs as far north as the Carara area (where it’s super rare) and even moves into the Central Valley at certain times of the year (maybe October and November?).

The Rufous-crested Coquette is a vagrant to Costa Rica that hasn’t been positively identified for a number of years. I bet at least a few show up in country and get overlooked though, especially if they search for flowers in the underbirded southeastern sector of the country. Since this bird has been recorded just across the border in Bocas del Toro, Panama, the southeast is also the most likely area for it to turn up. These little, rufous-crested sprites were historically recorded from San Jose though so it’s not entirely out of the question to have one turn up in the Central Valley or perhaps even in Braulio Carrillo National Park.

In fact, one may have showed up at El Tapir just last week. Not only that, but rumor has it that it was also sharing space with the other two coquette species in a roadside garden somewhere near the arial tram! If true, this would be like hitting the once in a lifetime Costa Rican birding jackpot. So far, it’s still just a rumor and hasn’t been authenticated but given the coquette’s propensity for wandering combined with freaky weather that could affect flowering patterns, it’s not entirely out of the question. If I check the situation out and hit the jackpot, I will make up for the lack of coquette photos in this post by showing all three in my next.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Arenal Observatory Lodge

This past weekend I co-guided the Bird Club of Costa Rica (BCCR) once again; this time at a lodge that sits at the foot of the most active volcano in Costa Rica- Volcan Arenal. Smoking and grumbling in the Caribbean slope foothills, Arenal is about 2 hours from Monteverde, nearly four hours drive from San Jose. On Saturday morning I did the drive with fellow BCCR members Johan and Ineke. It was one of those beautiful Saturday mornings when the beauty of the green mountains framed by blue skies makes you wish more than ever that you could fly just so you could get up there as quick as possible. Flying would leave out the narrow curvy roads too but since we never evolved wings, up we went twisting and turning through coffee plantations in a small burnt-orange Chevrolet. Traffic was light and the air scented by cloud forest remnants- a pleasant drive up and over the ridge of the Cordillera Central to descend once again past the La Paz waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.

This is a truly beautiful route and one that should be birded more (one of these days, I’m going to bird the forest remnants and tangled bamboo near Varablanca and post about it). We passed fruit stalls with golden pineapples and football-sized papayas, gardens glowing with purple bougainvilla and shining red Heliconias. When we turned left at San Miguel, the Caribbean lowland plain streched out below; all the way to forested hills on the Nicaraguan border. We drove through far too many cow pastures; lands at one time shaded by immense rain forest trees with 400 species of birds. Now, the pasture grasses and thick spiny growth support a handfull of species; Anis, Seedeaters and Red-winged Blackbirds in place of Antbirds, Forest Falcons and Umbrellabirds. On the way to Ciudad Quesada, I was gladdened to see some intact forest in hilly areas-probably a watershed. Hopefully I will continue to see it, maybe even bird it some day.

In Ciudad Quesada we stopped for a coffee at a small bakery called Pan de Leon. The true pizza aficionado I am, I tried their pizza- like most pizza here, it was strange but ok and nothing close to New York pizza (yes, I miss it!). We made it to La Fortuna not long after, softly cruising along smooth roads. This incredible lack of potholes was a pleasant and welcome surprise; potholes and broken pavement are standard aspects of central valley roads- some are so lunar that locals stick tires or trees in the deeper “calle” chasms. Eager to get to our destination, we buzzed through touristy La Fortuna. This place is over done with hotels and “cabinas”, most of which also over charge. We pondered over how strong the recession will hit local businesses, how many will have to close their doors and put up a closed indefinitely sign instead of one that reads no vacancy.

Not long after the Tabacon hot springs we saw the turn off for our lodge and traded the asphalt of the highway for the rocky, dusty road that led straight towards the volcano. Luckily we had good, dry weather because during heavy rains that road is probably a slick, muddy mess. It first passed through old orchards, then just after the entrance to the national park was flanked by old second growth. We stopped  a few times and had several wintering warblers (Blue-winged being the best) along with different Wrens, Lesser Greenlet, Dusky Antbird, Great Antshrike and others- not bad for sunny midday weather. This road is probably very good in the early morning and late afternoon as the old second growth is connected to large areas of intact forest. Its probably good for night-birding too.

We stopped at a bridge with volcano in view and got nice looks at several species here such as Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and Thick billed Seed Finch (female below).

We were also entertained by Southern Rough-wing Swallows.

Further on we saw the “famous” Tucanes trail that we had never heard of. Apparently its good for seeing “the red hot lava”.

Opting for birds intead of glowing lava, we passed through the lodge checkpoint and headed up the hill to our destination.

The Arenal Observatory Lodge is not only aptly named with its perfect views of the volcano, but is also an excellent spot for birding.  This was the view from our window. Although the top of the volcano is typically shrouded in clouds, some glowing red hot areas are usually visible at night and rocks are frequently heard tumbling down the mountainside.  We saw lots of good birds from the balcony; Robert Dean, the illustrator for the latest Costa Rica field guide, saw Black Hawk Eagle from here before we arrived.

One of the best birds was Black-crested Coquette. This is the easiest site to see this species possibly anywhere- several females and occasional males were always in view feeding in the Verbena or Porterweed.

We also had nice looks at Violet-headed Hummingbird and this infrequent hummingbird species; a female Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

One of the friendliest birds was this Broad-winged Hawk-Costa Rica’s most common winter raptor.

We got good looks at other common species such as Melodious Blackbird.

and uncommon species such as Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- here a female.

The deck by the restaurant was ok but could have been better if they had put out more fruit for the birds. Nevertheless, it still attracted a few species and had awesome views of the volcano.

Speaking of restaurants, I can’t say I recommend that of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The buffet breakfast was good but the rest was over-priced, boring dishes. Really, you are better off dining somewhere near Fortuna. That way, you can also bird the entrance road in the afternoon and look for night birds on the way back.

Although much of the vegetation at the lodge is non-native Eucalyptus and Caribbean pine, their trails mostly access native vegetation. The concrete trail behind our balconies looked promising; Robert has seen Thicket Antpitta here. The best trail might be the waterfall trail though. This trail accesses some beautiful middle elevation forest and has a bridge offering some canopy birding. After crossing the bridge, one reaches an open area with views of forested hills; the perfect situation to scan for Lovely Cotinga in the morning (which we didn’t see but does occur). Although we had a fairly quiet time along this trail, its probably worth a whole day as it likely holds middle elevation rarities such as Sharpbill, Black-headed Anthrush and much more. Some of the notable species we had were Crested Guan, Song Wren, Spotted Antbird and Olive-striped Flycatcher. At the entrance to the trail we had a brief flyby of a Yellow-eared Toucanet that was hanging out with a large group of Aracaris which was followed up by an even briefer flyby of what was almost certainly two Red-Shouldered Parrotlets!!

One of the coolest sightings was not a bird. See if you can find the Tigrillo or Oncilla that had been hanging around the waterfall trail. Raised by people and released here, it is far from afraid. In fact, you have to be careful it doesn’t jump on you! It was amazing to see one of these running around; very few people have seen this secretive species in the wild. Editor’s note- turns out that this cat was a Margay.

I would certainly recommend staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge whether you bird or not. For birders, the cabins sans volcano view are just as good, if not better (at least for birding) because they are closer to good habitat with a beautiful overlook that should be good for raptors and scanning the canopy for Cotingas, etc. Although the restaurant offerings need serious help, the trails are also good birding as is the entrance road (check the rivers for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger Heron); birding both areas should turn up a good variety of lowland and middle elevation species. This is a great place to bring non-birding family and friends too but make reservations at this justly popular spot. If you aren’t staying here, you can still bird the entrance road for free and can pay $4 to bird the trails at the lodge, which in my opinion is very much worth it.