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Birding Costa Rica Christmas Counts

Highlights and Impressions from Annual Bird Counts at Cano Negro and Arenal, 2019

The past week has been marked by bird counts, at least for us and the other 80 plus people that helped count birds at Cano Negro and Arenal. Since many of the counters and count organizers are busy with tours later on in December, these counts don’t fit into the official count time frame for the Audubon Christmas Counts and are thus not tabulated therein. However, that doesn’t minimize their importance, we still try to hold them around the same dates for each year and with the same routes and effort.

Pretty typical for December, this year’s counts were marked by the arrival of a cold front. It brought the expected buckets of rain and filled the wetlands of Cano Negro to the brink. As one might imagine, the heavy rains also presented challenges to watching birds but we still managed (yay for us participants!).

Some of the highlights and other impressions from this year’s annual bird counts for Cano Negro and Arenal:

You can still bird in the rain but it’s better when it stops

When birding in the rain, there’s a fine balance between getting too much rain and having just enough to boost the avian activity. Fortunately, it didn’t rain the entire time for either count! Although we did experience some heavy, prolonged falling water, we also had enough downtime from precipitation to count the birds.

Odd birds from the ocean

The good thing about a cold front is the birds that it can bring to town. That cool weather from the north can come with some surprises. At Cano Negro, they came in the form of a few Laughing Gulls, a Sandwich Tern, and two Brown Pelicans. Although we weren’t too far from marine environments, this inland freshwater wetland and refuge is still far enough from the ocean to make sightings of coastal species very unusual. I also checked the lake at Arenal but didn’t find any errant shearwaters or other similar oddities.

The new tower at Finca Luna Nueva

This recent excellent addition to Luna Nueva merits its own post and will get one at some point. During the count, we got a hint of what the birding can be like, I can’t wait to check it out during a sunnier, warmer dawn. On count day, the misty, rainy, and cool weather kept activity to a minimum. At other times, I bet it can be really good.

Both counts deliver the goods

Despite the tough weather, thanks to a good number of enthusiastic participants, we recorded most expected species at both counts. Our best birds at Cano Negro may have been the uncommon Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Bare-crowned Antbird, and Bronzy Hermit. At Arenal, these were probably Black-crested Coquette, Uniform Crake, Gray Catbird, Ovenbird, and a few other nice finds.

Best birds from 270 plus species at Cano Negro

It’s hard to decide which birds were the best finds for all routes combined but good contenders come in the form of Tiny Hawk, Northern Harrier, crakes, Pinnated Bittern, Snowy Cotinga, and a few others.

Best Birds from 350 plus species at Arenal

One of our best and most memorable birds was a displaying Sunbittern. Thanks to Beto Palma for sharing this picture.

Another tough call, but some of the rarer species recorded included Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Sharpbill, the super tough Lanceolated Monklet, Tody Motmot, two hawk-eagle species, and Ring-necked Duck among others.

Good birding in good company and bird education

As always, the top highlights from both counts come in the form of sharing these special days with fellow birders. Some of us are veterans of bird counts, others were watching and counting birds for the first time. Promotion of birding also happened this year by way of birding workshops that took place in local communities before each count. Our count fees also helped fund those endeavors.

Beto Palma took this picture of the count shirt.

The count shirt is pretty cool too! Many thanks goes to Diego Quesada, Jheudy Carballo, Anthony Arce, Luis Enrique of Bird Songs Bijagua, and other members of the count committee for making these important bird counts happen.

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big year bird finding in Costa Rica caribbean slope

Cano Negro Birding in Costa Rica Delivers the Goods

Like most countries, Costa Rica has more than one type of major habitat, more than one bio-region. Habitats such as the tropical dry forests in the northwest and the cloud forests of the highlands are clearly different in appearance, location, and elevation. Others, like the rainforests of the southern Pacific and the Caribbean lowlands, look similar at a glance but reveal differences upon closer inspection.

These ecological differences are why never see Charming Hummingbirds and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds fighting over the same food source, why more species are seen on birding trips that visit both sides of the mountains and different elevations, and why Cano Negro is one of the major key birding sites in Costa Rica.

This wetland area associated with Lake Nicaragua is where a birder has to go to see Nicaraguan Grackle. It’s where Spot-breasted Wren and Gray-fronted Dove can be easily added to a trip list, and where several other species are more readily encountered than in other parts of Costa Rica.

You won’t see this grackle slumming it up in some urban zone.

Thanks to increased diligent birding by a few guides who live in the Cano Negro area, most of those specialties are now much easier to find than in the past. These include birds like Yellow-breasted Crake, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Bare-crowned Antbird, Agami Heron, and even Green and Rufous Kingfisher!

Yellow-breasted Crake- essentially an aquatic, big-toed sparrow.

Thanks to boat and birding guide Barnaby “Chambita” Romero, Team Tyto (that would be Mary and I), and several other fortunate birders enjoyed a quick yet very productive day and a half of birding in the wetlands of the north. Even more impressive was the fact that we actually spent just an afternoon and a morning of birding and still managed to see most of our targets.

Beginning in Medio Queso, a late afternoon boat ride was punctuated by good look at Pinnated Bittern.

It wasn’t very close but this first of three or four Pinnateds gave us excellent looks.

We also scored with fine views of the smallest and most local heron species in Costa Rica, the Least Bittern. Other targets included a couple of Nicaraguan Grackles, Yellow-breasted Crake seen very well, a Sora (a regular yet challenging migrant and fantastic year bird!), and a few other bird species while we were entertained by the acrobatics of Fork-tailed Flycatchers.

The following morning saw us on a boat shortly after 6 a.m. in the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge.

With certain targets in mind, Chambita skillfully traversed the fallen logs of the Rio Frio to get us in touch with such fine birds as Snowy Cotinga, a fantastic Green and Rufous Kingfisher, Limpkins, and from the tower, a mega distant yet identifiable Jabiru in flight!

It was quite the successful trip and impossible to choose a best bird from so many candidates but given the amount of time and effort some had undertaken to unsuccessfully see Sungrebe in the past, and the fantastic looks we had at two of this awesome feathered weirdo, I think the odd duckish thing with the clown socks takes the prize.

In terms of Team Tyto’s Big Year, it was also an excellent start, I wonder what we will see next?

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Birding Costa Rica lowlands

Wonderful Birding in Costa Rica at Hotel de Campo, Cano Negro

Last weekend, I helped count birds at Cano Negro, a wildlife refuge in northern Costa Rica just south of Lake Nicaragua. It was a wonderful, birdy time that included sightings of more than 20 species of raptors, Nicaraguan Grackle, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and Yellow-breasted Crake among other highlights. Since the wetlands and forested areas of Cano Negro always make for excellent birding, constant encounters of the avian kind were pretty much expected but what we didn’t count on was sleeping in comfort during the weekend of the count. On many an occasion, bird counts in Costa Rica include a couple nights on a mattress or cot in a room shared with a bunch of other excited birders. That’s alright, especially if you are young and full of energy, but a bit later in life, a comfortable bed in quiet surroundings is pure gold. This is why Robert, Susan, and I were pleased indeed to be staying at the Hotel de Campo .

The entrance to the wildlife refuge is at the Cano Negro village, a small place with a few streets, some houses, one bar, two small supermarkets (where you can thankfully find ice!), and not much else. That “not much else” is a good thing because it’s partly why the area has so many birds but it also means that there are very few places in the village where you can get a bite to eat and stay for the night. The Hotel de Campo provides both and when you stay there, you also support reforestation while treating yourself to nice photo and birding opportunities along with some fine Italian food.

The owner, Mauro, told me that while they were building the hotel, they also planted several trees and basically reforested areas around the hotel. These same spots now provide homes for Cinnamon and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers along with other lowland forest species like this Slaty-tailed Trogon and even Uniform Crake (try their botanical garden across the street from the hotel)!

Thanks to multiple fruiting trees in the hotel gardens, dozens of birds are usually present including the likes of Gray-headed Chachalaca, trogons, Brown-hooded Parrot and other parrots and parakeets. The close looks make for great photos and the two regional specialties, Gray-headed Dove and Spot-breasted Wren are also present and easy to see.

One of the Gray-headed Doves at Hotel de Campo. This species is much, much easier to see in Cano Negro than other parts of the country.

When you tire of admiring beautiful Red-legged Honeycreepers and various other species on the hotel grounds, you can also walk down to the lagoon and see if any Jabirus are around. Those mega storks visit on occasion (mostly in the dry season) whereas species like Green Ibis, herons, Bat Falcon and many other birds are more regular. Not to mention, there is the nearby refuge itself that provides chances at Sungrebe, kingfishers, crakes, Snowy Cotinga, and an overall fine selection of birds to be seen from a small boat and from a new, tall, sturdy observation tower.

The view from the tower.

Hotel de Campo can arrange boat trips and fishing in the refuge and other activities. Enjoy a cold drink in their nice bar at the end of the day along with the air conditioned room (a welcome treat in hot humid Cano Negro) but don’t forget to head back out at night to see Pacific Screech Owl that lives in the garden and to look for Great Potoo, Common Potoo, Striped Owl, and Black-and-White Owl on roads near the village. All of these are possible and regular in the area!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction lowlands

Birding Costa Rica at Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Cano Negro is a small village, a place to fish for monster Tarpon (yes, they are monsters), and an access point for one of the two major wetland sites in Costa Rica (the other one being Palo Verde). Since it’s a five hour drive from the Central Valley, I don’t make it up that way very often. Well, to be honest, I haven’t gone there since 2001 so, I was pretty excited to make a much needed trip to Cano Negro with the local birding club this past weekend.

To sum things up, I got 27 year birds, I think 6 new birds for my Costa Rica list, and three damn delightful lifers! One of those was more or less expected, and the other two were straw-colored marsh birds that I hoped to see but knew that I could easily be going back to the Central Valley without them.

So, here’s some highlights and general impressions from the trip:

Cano Negro is easy to get to: It’s a fairly quick, five hour drive where you may be entertained by drive-by sightings of toucans, parrots, parakeets, and other cool tropical birds. Bird along the way on the right route and you could even tick things like Fasciated Tiger Heron, Sunbittern, Torrent Tyrannulet, and so on. The road in to Cano Negro is rocky but can still be done with a two wheel drive car at least during the dry season.

The Loveats Cafe is en route: If you are coming from the Central Valley, screw that route through Zarcero. Take the San Ramon-San Lorenzo route and onward to Muelle. This passes by excellent birding opps such as the Hummingbird Garden, the San Luis canopy, the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, and most of all, the Loveats Cafe! Stop there for excellent vegetarian food, including authentic Middle Eastern hummus, good coffee, and baked goods.

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How can you not stop at a place with a giant “cookies” sign? And yes, they are very good cookies!

The birding and photography is good right in the village: The village is pretty rural so there are lots of fruiting trees and gardens that are filled with birds like Red-lored Parrot, Collared Aracari, and chances to

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witness sad attempts by Gray-headed Chachalacas to be Peafowl,

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check out many a Pale-vented Pigeon lounging on power lines,

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get into staring contests with Olive-throated Parakeets, and

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marvel over the blues of a male Red-legged Honeycreeper.

Some hotels have feeders: At least ours did (the Hotel de Campo) but I think others in the area might do the same or be convinced to put out a banana or two. Although no Yellow-winged Tanagers showed up, it was still nice to watch the usual parade of common bird species like

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Blue-gray Tanager. Dang, that’s a beautiful bird. Almost like a neotropical Mountain Bluebird.

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Red-legged Honeycreeper. You gotta love it when you can soak up the views of a blue and turquoise bird with hints of  purple, classy patches of black, and red legs.

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Yellow-throated Euphonia. It’s really cool when birds perch on the fruit they eat. Euphonias are basically goldfinches that evolved into colorful mistletoe eaters. This male shows the classic euphonia blend of steely blackish-blue and bright yellow.

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This female Yellow-throated Euphonia shows the much drabber olives and dull colors that make them a pain to identify.

Oh and there is great wetland birding too: Wetlands on the road in can host any number of waterbirds but the best waterbirding is near the village of Cano Negro. A lagoon behind our hotel had the usual assortment of common waterbirds along with occasional Green Ibis, flyby Merlin, and the owner said a Jabiru was there a few days before.

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The lagoon behind the Hotel de Campo.

A boat trip is the best way to experience marsh and river birding though and our Saturday morning boat trip was basically a big fat success!

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Amazon Kingfishers were constant companions and the trip to marshy lagoons was highlighted by American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Ibis, a bevy of Mangrove Cuckoos (yes there were at least 6), and two surreal Sungrebes! The lagoons had the best stuff though.

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These people were looking at…

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Pinnated Bittern! Finally, after years of wondering how similar this neotropical bittern was to immature tiger-herons, I can personally say that it looks quite different. Sure it has some of that barring but it’s much paler and has those bittern streaks in front among other differences. It’s almost like a massive, mutant Least Bittern that hybridized with a tiger-heron. The very bird pictured here was lifer number one of the trip.

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When seen head on, this neotropical marsh monster does sort of look Frankensteinish.

Yellow-breasted Crake!– No picture but lifer number two and a top shelf one at that. As luck would have it, as soon as we saw the Pinnated Bittern, a small straw-colored bird popped up out of the vegetation in front of me and transformed into a Yellow-breasted Crake. Other people in the group saw one or two more while watching the bittern.

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What the marsh looked like.

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We also saw a few Lesser yellow-headed Vultures at this site. I digiscoped this harrier-like vulture through my binoculars.

An ocean of raptors: After leaving the place on Sunday, sunny weather turned the skies into a ridiculous raptor migration bonanza. It was the biggest I have ever seen in Costa Rica and there were kettles and lines of vultures, Swainson’s Hawks, and Broad-winged Hawks pretty  much in every direction. It was simply downright silly crazy.

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A bad representation of the thousands of raptors that were migrating over our heads.

A visit to El Roble wetlands: Although local ornithologists seem to refer to this place as the Humedal Medio Queso (literally half cheese wetlands), locals call it El Roble. They go there to fish on weekends. We went there to see birds for an hour and it was pretty darn awesome. We saw more Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, a distant Northern Harrier (good bird in Costa Rica), and two more Pinnated Bitterns! To get there, take the road at the Los Chiles airport that heads to the east. If I recall correctly, this gravel road is on the south side of the airport. Once you get to the wetlands, don’t drive into the Medio Queso river! The road simply ends and starts up again on the other side of the river because they have yet to put in a bridge.

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Another super sweet Pinnated Bittern!

What a trip! The third lifer was Nicaraguan Grackle– not as common and easy as you might expect but we saw a few here and there, especially on the boat trip.

Not much more to say than to expect lots of cool birds when you go to Cano Negro! I feel that I should also mention that mosquitoes weren’t bad at all during our trip although the area was much drier than normal.