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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Costa Rica Birding Highlights from Guiding at Carara National Park

I would love to guide three week tours in Costa Rica that culminate in 500 plus bird species. We would stalk mossy, middle elevation forests in search of Ochre-breasted Antpitta, quail-doves, and Lanceolated Monklet. Mid-morning skies above Quebrada Gonzalez would be scanned for hawk-eagles, King Vulture, and other raptors. Exciting, bird filled days would be had in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and south Pacific slopes and the hot, dry forests of Guanacaste would yield things like Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Double-striped Thick-Knee, Pacific Screech-Owl, and other birds with multi-syllabic names.  It would be a great old birdy time BUT family matters keep me from even thinking about organizing such an adventure so I do day trips or short overnights.

That’s fine with me because the manageable size of Costa Rica makes it plausible to visit several habitats on different day trips and living here means that I can easily get to some of the more far flung sites (to boost the year list of course). High bird diversity in Costa Rica also means that I see a bunch of birds every time I head out in any case so I’m not complaining! Take for example two recent trips to Carara National Park and vicinity. On one day trip, even though the focus was on bird photography, we still ended up identifying over 140 species (!). This reflects the amazing bird diversity in and around Carara as do the 120 or so species identified from a morning of guiding done there yesterday.

A high number of species were identified on the forest trail behind the HQ in part because the birds were singing up a storm. Mornings in Costa Rica are filled with bird song because March is nesting season for a number of bird species . It can be frustrating when they chortle, trill, and chirp yet refuse to come out from behind that wall of green but at least we know that Green Shrike Vireos are hanging out in the canopy and that Blue-black Grosbeaks are haunting the undergrowth. With a little luck and patience, though, the majority of vocalizing species show themselves and this  was how we got Black-faced Antthrush, Rufous-breasted, Riverside, and Rufous and white Wrens, and Dusky Antbird among others. These species are pretty much par for the course at Carara although the antthrush isn’t always guaranteed. We did pretty good on woodcreepers for birding just one morning. Five species were seen (Wedge-billed, Northern Barred, Streak-headed, Cocoa, and Long-tailed) and one was a heard only (Black-striped). The pickings were slim on trogons however, with just one Baird’s heard and a pair of Black-throated seen.

birding Costa Rica

Black-throated Trogon.

Both spadebill species were calling (Stub-tailed and Golden-crowned), the buzzy trills of Northern Bentbills were heard throughout the morning, and we had very close looks at a good number of Chestnut-backed Antbirds. Mixed flock activity was fair and resulted in niceties such as Slaty Antwren, Royal Flycatcher (pretty scarce this year), and Tropical Parula.

Cloudy weather made it easier to see Lesser Swallow-tailed and Costa Rican Swifts above the forest and also revealed a few migrating Cliff Swallows. Back down in the understory, Streak-chested Antpitta was a non-heard no show but we did get nice looks at both White-tipped and Gray-chested Doves and a pair of beautiful Ruddy Quail-Doves seen at the Heliconia patch on the “Universal Trail”. This spot also had Long-billed and Bronzy Hermits chasing each other around and was close to where we had perfect, close looks at three Great Tinamous. Conspicuously absent were the odd, metallic calls of Three-wattled Bellbird. Maybe they will show up next month to feed on fruiting figs but for the moment they have mostly (or only?) been seen in the hills above Carara (you might get them along the road to Bijagual).

As far as colorful birds go, Turquoise-browed Motmot showed nicely near the trail entrance, Scarlet Macaws made regular flybys through the canopy, and we had several sightings of Red-legged Honeycreepers, Bay-headed Tanagers, and Golden-hooded Tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

Red-legged Honeycreeper

During a day of guiding on Sunday, a different set of more than 100 species were seen in much wetter, middle elevation forests near San Ramon. Over there on the Caribbean slope, we started things off with Least Grebe, Ringed Kingfisher, and Solitary Sandpiper on a lake along with flyovers of Red-billed Pigeons, Brown Jays, and Montezuma Oropendolas. This was quickly followed up by Crested Guan posing for us in a Cecropia, a Stripe-breasted Wren that thankfully revealed itself in a mossy vine tangle, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner coming into playback of its song, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush showing well, Tropical Parulas trilling from the treetops, and several tanagers that called but remained oddly elusive.

We eventually got good looks at Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Emerald, Silver-throated, Speckled, Passerini’s and Crimson-collared Tanagers but Black and yellows and Carmiol’s (Olive) afforded very few good looks and White-throated Shrike Tanager ended up being a heard only. Not fully connecting with a good mixed flock was also why we missed out on fairly common species such as Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, and Slaty-capped Flycatcher.

We were entertained by American Swallow-tailed Kites as we scanned the treetops of an open area but didn’t chance upon any of the toucans, raptors, parrots, or other birds that are often seen from this point. A nice surprise bird here was a Lattice-tailed Trogon that called and then gave good looks as it flew in front of us before it swooped out of sight into a dense patch of forest.

birding Costa Rica

Nothing in the trees today.

As is usual along the road to Alberto Brenes Reserve, we had nice looks at Rufous-tailed Jacamar but even one of those needle-billed iridescent beauties taking a dust bath in the road was trumped by seeing Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds. Although we couldn’t find any army ants, they must have been terrorizing invertebrate communities somewhere in the area because the presence of these two antbird species is typically associated with good old Eciton burchelli. On a side note, Ocellated Antbirds seem to be sighted with more regularity along this road than others areas in Costa Rica.

Some nice heard only birds were Black Hawk-Eagle, Nightingale Wren, and Tawny-faced Gnatwren.

Hopefully this will give readers an idea of what may be waiting for them if visiting Carara or San Ramon in the next two weeks. If you go, tell us about your highlights in the comments.

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Birding Costa Rica identification issues

Costa Rica Birding: Trogons

Trogons. The name given to these fancy, emblematic birds with glittering plumage seems to fit them. A unique word for a unique family of birds. So what does the name of this family mean? “Iridescent wonders”? “Extremely cool birds”? No, “trogon” is derived from the Greek word for “gnawing” or “nibbling”. Yes, that’s right, if you saw an Elegant Trogon in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, you were apparently looking at an Elegant Gnawer. All I can say is thank goodness that the trogon species known as quetzals are called “quetzals” (which is a Nahuatl word meaning “tail feather”).

In typical ornithological fashion, the trogons were not named after their obvious stunning beauty, but got their name from their manner of making a nest. Nest-building is more like nest-excavating for the Trogonidae in Costa Rica and elsewhere. Despite their lack of a strong bill, for millions of years, the trogons have managed to raise viable young in cavities that they nibbled or gnawed out of rotten wood and termite nests. Although many nesting holes were probably started by woodpeckers, excavating a nesting cavity still seems like quite an accomplishment with those rather blunt bills.

Close up of a trogon’s “gnawing bill”.

In any case, the strategy of gnawing or nibbling out a nesting cavity has worked for the trogons and hooray for that (!) because these are ALWAYS wonderful birds to watch. I mean who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a trogon? They have this comical manner of moving their heads around to look in all sorts of directions while perched in an upright position, look like nothing else on Earth, and usually have glittering, colorful plumage. AND when birding in Costa Rica, the ten different species that occur are fairly easy to see, especially when vocalizing (which seems to be most often from February to July).

The ten species of trogons to see when birding in Costa Rica are (from easiest to least easiest):

Gartered Trogon: One of the smaller trogons in Costa Rica, these guys are pretty darn common. This edge species mostly occurs in humid lowland areas but also ranges up into the dry northwest and the western part of the Central Valley. Listen for its call:

violaceous trogon1

and watch for it at the edge of forested areas, semi-open areas, and in second growth.

Male Gartered Trogon from Manzanillo, Costa Rica.

Female Gartered Trogon from Rancho Oropendola, Costa Rica.

Black-headed Trogon: Slighter bigger than the Gartered, the Black-headed Trogon reaches the southern limit of its range at Carara National Park. It is mostly found in the Pacific northwest and is also pretty easy to see because of the open nature of its habitat (dry forest edge). Although it resembles the Violaceous Trogon, it has a much more staccato call (and sounds more like (and is more closely related to) Baird’s and White-tailed Trogons), has an unbroken, bluish eye ring, and lacks barring on the tail. Watch for it in any wooded area on the Pacific slope north of Carara (you can also see it along the Meandrico Trail at Carara along with four other trogon species (!)).

Male Black-headed Trogon from Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Slaty-tailed Trogon: This big, hulking trogon is almost the size of a quetzal. Because of its size, colorful plumage, and conspicuous red-orange bill, it just looks unreal. Incredibly, it’s also pretty common and easy to see in lowland rainforest such as at La Selva or Carara.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from OTS La Selva, Costa Rica.

Orange-bellied Trogon: A bit smaller than the Slaty-tailed, the Orange-bellied Trogon is most common in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica (such as around Monteverde). It also occurs further south (including western Panama) but is mostly replaced there by the closely related Collared Trogon.

Male Orange-bellied Trogon from El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro Amarillo, Costa Rica.

Female Orange-bellied Trogon from Lost and Found Eco-lodge, Panama.

Collared Trogon: Except for a red, instead of orange belly, this trogon resembles, acts, and sounds a lot like the Orange-bellied Trogon. It is pretty easy to see in Tapanti National Park and other cloud forests of the Talamancas. This species has a very wide range from southern Mexico to Amazonia. Although it looks similar throughout its range, Amazonian birds sound noticeably different from Central American birds (it would be interesting to see a molecular phylogeny of this species with sampling throughout its range).

Sorry, no photo of Collared Trogon! Imagine an Orange-bellied Trogon with a red belly.

Resplendent Quetzal: Yes, this crazy looking bird is a species of trogon. Because there are so many tours you can take to reliably see a quetzal, it almost made the top of the list as the easiest trogon to see when birding Costa Rica. Although they aren’t as guaranteed as when taking a quetzal tour, you have a pretty good chance of running into one in any area of extensive highland forest in Costa Rica. For more information see my post about this spectacular bird.

Black-throated Trogon: The same size as a Gartered Trogon, this bird is pretty common but it’s not as easy to see as the other trogons because it sticks to the interior subcanopy and upper understory of lowland rainforest. Listening for their rather inconspicuous vocalization of three, short, low-toned, descending whistles is a good way to find them in any of the lowland rainforest sites.

Male Black-throated Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Baird’s Trogon: The male is one heck of a beautiful bird! A southern Pacific slope endemic, the Baird’s Trogon is only found from Carara National Park to the Panamanian border. Although it isn’t very rare in lowland, primary rainforest, since so much of this habitat has been replaced with non-trogon friendly pastures and oil palms plantations, it is considered to be a near-threatened species. It’s kind of uncommon in Carara (I think it used to be more common in the past), but is more frequent in wetter forests of the hills above Carara (especially at the little visited Cangreja National Park), and further south.

Male Baird’s Trogon from La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon: This large trogon replaces the Slaty-tailed in the wet, mossy, foothill forests of the Caribbean slope. It’s not all that rare in this habitat, but because those forests are so dense, and because there are so few accessible sites to see this species, it isn’t sighted as often as the other trogons. If you do go birding in Costa Rica, however, you should make an effort to see the Lattice-tailed Trogon because it only occurs there and in western Panama. The best spots to see it are at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park, and at Rara Avis.

Lattice-tailed Trogon from Rara Avis, Costa Rica.

Elegant Trogon: Although you have a fair chance of seeing this species if you bird gallery forest in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, it’s more common in many other parts of its large range (northwestern Costa Rica north through Central America and Mexico to southern Arizona). Hence no picture for this one either!

White-tailed Trogon. Wait, that’s not in the book! It might be someday though. I have heard of a few reports from Manzanillo that could end up being this species, so if you bird down that way, send me whatever notes you take and pictures you get of any trogon that you think is a Black-headed.

Male White-tailed (Western) Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

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Introduction Panama trips

Some photos from a birding trip to Achiote, Panama

I recently went to Achiote, Panama for a few days. Achiote, on the caribbean side of the canal zone, is a village with access to the San Lorenzo National Park. It was pretty hot and humid, the birding and mammal viewing was great and I would love to go back especially during hawk watching season. Here is a link to a trip report I posted on Surfbirds: http://www.surfbirds.com/trip_report.php?id=1452

And here are some photos from the trip:

View from the overlook at Centro El Tucan in Achiote; community owned and run educational center and hostel. It was pretty good for birding too.

Centro El Tucan

Here are some pictures from the Centro overlook

Can you find the Orange-chinned Parakeets? There was a flock of 30 feeding on a Balsa tree in front of the overlook.

Female Flame-rumped Tanager

The most common Tanager in the area was Plain-colored Tanager. The blue on the wing coverts is usually hidden.

Pied Puffbirds were pretty common in the area at least by call; I had them at El Tucan, along the Achiote Road and at the restaurant in town.

I only saw Black-breasted Puffbird, however, along the Achiote Road in San Lorenzo National Park.

The Trogon Trail along the Achiote Road lived up to its name with..

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Black-throated Trogon

Western White-tailed Trogons were common along the road.

Not a bird but so what; cool flowers along Trogon Trail.

I got up close and personal with White-whiskered Puffbird.

The most common raptor was Yellow-headed Caracara.

Achiote Road was good for mammals too. This is a Geoffreys Tamarin.

And here is a Northern Tamandua.