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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

Birding around Carara, Costa Rica- Always Exciting, Always Excellent

The first time I visited Carara National Park was in 1992. I went by bus with a few friends, one of whom was also a birder. We stayed in the hot coastal village of Tarcoles and made the long, even hotter walk to the national park. There was good birding on the way and on the short trails that left from the HQ; a small building at the southern edge of the park. There were lots of birds; trogons, various flycatchers, antbirds, manakins and many other classic species of lowland rainforest. Fast forward to the present and there are more places to stay, better knowledge of where to find birds around this hotspot, and although populations of humid forest species have declined in response to a drier climate, the birding continues to be exciting and excellent.

One of the new trails at Carara- expect great birding here!

I was reminded of the world-class birding during a recent day of guiding in and around Carara. This is a bit of how that long good day of birding went:

Dry forest habitats along the Guacalillo Road

A good road rather near Carara, it’s probably the closest spot to connect with all possible species of dry forest habitats. Since the national park didn’t open until eight, we began the birding on this route. The birding is typically sweet along this road and Saturday was no exception. We were entertained and kept buy by:

Multiple Turquoise-browed Motmots perched on wires, handsome Stripe-headed Sparrows chattering from the roadside, and seeing numerous other common edge species.

Turquoise-browed Motmot- always impressive.

-Of note was the calling activity of Crested Bobwhites. We always had at least one within earshot and had excellent looks at the first one encountered.

-Although Lesser Ground-Cuckoo was quiet, we eventually got looks at one.

-Nice looks at Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots.

This beautiful bird is the most numerous parrot species in dry Pacific coast habitats.

White-throated Magpie Jay, Double-striped Thick-Knee, and other dry forest species.

Carara National Park

After nearly two hours of constant great birding, it was time to extend the awesomeness to another completely different habitat, the lowland rainforests of Carara National Park. Although the mosquitoes were pretty bad, highlights there included:

-A close, singing male Ruddy Quail-Dove, views of Streak-chested Antpitta, and even closer prolonged looks at Marbled Wood-Quail.

-Army Ant swarm with several Gray-headed Tanagers, Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed and Bicolored Antbird, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner.

Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner was split from Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner.

Royal Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Blue-crowned Manakin, views of Slaty-tailed and Baird’s Trogons, and other nice rainforest species. Oh, and a soaring adult King Vulture right from the parking area.

The Tarcoles area

A post-lunch stop, the edge habitats and seasonal wetlands around Tarcoles turned up a few nice bird species, the best being a sweet roosting Black-and-white Owl (thanks to gen from a local farmer!), Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Lineated Woodpecker, and Black-headed and Gartered Trogons.

Black-headed Trogon is one of the easiest trogons to see in Costa Rica.

Cerro Lodge Road

Leaving this birdy site for last, we had some of the same species as the morning but also saw our target Crane Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and some other new birds before the rains convinced us to call it a day.

Crane Hawk- an uncommon raptor.

After tallying the results, including birds that were heard only, we had a list of more than 140 species. Incredibly, around Carara, that’s pretty much par for the course (!). However, considering that the birding takes place in three or four distinct biodiverse tropical habitats, a consistent high total is also perhaps unsurprising. As always, I wonder what I will find the next time I visit the Carara area? Birding there is best done over the course of two or three days but if you can only manage one, that single exciting day of birding is still worth the trip.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Humid Forest Birding in Carara National Park

For those who follow my blog on a regular basis, I apologize for not posting recently. It seems that lighting strikes have finally taken out the cables we use for Internet access at my house. I hope we can replace them ASAP. If you haven’t received any replies from emails sent to me, this is the reason why, I hope to respond some time this week.

Carara National Park is a special place and not just because it’s one of the top spots for birding in Central America. It also scores points on account of the park being the northern boundary for many rainforest species on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica, including several endemics that barely cross the border into Panama. Not to mention, contrary to what everyone else was doing in that part of Costa Rica during the 20th century, the owner decided to let the forest stand rather than trade biodiversity for hot, chiggery cow pasture. It was eventually turned into an official protected area and national park, in large part because it acted as a refuge for a remnant population of Scarlet Macaws, a species that once roamed tropical forests from eastern Mexico to Panama. Since macaws don’t usually do well around people who are intent on subjugating their natural surroundings by means of deforestation and have a constant open hunting season on whatever they feel like killing and/or eating, the macaws quickly disappeared from most parts of their Central American range by the 1960s and 70s. They held on in the hilly rainforests of Carara, and at present, their story is far better than so many other birds, animals, and plants that have the misfortune to live during the anthropomorphic extinction event currently taking place. Visit Carara and many areas of Costa Rica’s Pacific slope nowadays and views of spectacular Scarlet Macaws are a given. A lot of other birds are also expected although for many species, you have to bird the humid forest.

scarlet-maacws

A pair of Scarlet Macaws just outside the national park.

Most of that area does have a high humidity index with damn hot results, but rainforest species need more than water saturated air. Most species also require intact ecosystems with lots of big, mature trees, vines, palms, understory plants, forested streams, and other microhabitats that provide the right combination of humidity, rain, shade, and a myriad of other factors for such a high degree of biodiversity to coexist. In Carara, this is why you also need to bird inside the forest to have a chance at a the full complement of species that occur in and around the national park. Yes, birders should also check out dry forest on the other side of the river, pay a visit to mangroves, and check the estuary, open fields, second growth, the riparian forests on the floodplain trail (aka Laguna Miandrica Trail), and overlooks on the Bijagual Road, but make sure to also bird the trails that leave from the park headquarters.
Although several of these species can also be seen on the laguna trail, the following tend to be more common and easier on the HQ forest trails, and if you visit during the wet season, the floodplain trail might be flooded and closed anyways:

Great Tinamou
Marbled Wood-Quail (still pretty tough to see there)
Great Curassow (pretty rare but more likely here than on the other trail)
Ruddy Quail-Dove
Charming Hummingbird (also on the other trail but seems easier in the forest)
Baird’s Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
White-whiskered Puffbird
Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Russet Antshrike
Slaty Antwren
Streak-chested Antpitta
Black-faced Antthrush
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Golden-crowned Spadebill
Blue-crowned Manakin
Red-capped Manakin
Northern Schiffornis
Scaly-breasted Wren
Spot-crowned Euphonia

Of course, there’s a 100 or so other species you could run into on the HQ forest trails but since they can also be seen on the floodplain laguna trail just as easily (and some more easily), they didn’t make it onto the list above.

Tips for birding inside the rainforests of Carara:

Keep on looking: Unlike the laguna trail, the forest is more dense and it can be more difficult to see the birds. BUT, you will still see a lot, especially if you take it slow and keep on looking all around. That means always checking the forest floor, then the understory, and then the canopy for any movement or perched birds. The birds are there, and since they are used to people, they might just let you walk on past rather than take alarm.

Try to get back as far as you can: The humid forest species seem to be most common on the other side of the stream. Spend as much time as you can on that back loop and you will have a better chance at Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, Black-faced Antthrush, and most of the birds on the list.

bairds-trogon-female

Baird’s Trogon is more likely near the stream and on the back loop. As with several humid forest endemics, it doesn’t seem to be as common on the Carara trails as it used to be, probably because of consistent, drier weather affecting the forest. It, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Fiery-billed Aracari, and some other species are probably more common in higher, inaccessible areas of Carara.

Have a driver? Tell the chauffeur to meet you at the south entrance: This is really the best strategy for birding the forest trails because you can enter at the HQ and not have to backtrack it to the parking lot. Also, you won’t have to hurry back to make it out of the park by 4 when they close and lock the gate. This also makes it easier to bird the trails near the south entrance. This “entrance” isn’t really an official one but you can at least exit the forest there. When driving past the HQ entrance towards Jaco, it’s the spot where there is a metal gate with pictures of animals.
Hang out at the bridge: This is always a good spot to just hang out and see what shows up. Sadly, the massive fig tree there has died and will thus no longer attract tons of great birds when fruiting. The plus side is that seeing those birds was always a neck-breaking activity for distant anyways. The plus side is that, now, there is a better view of the sky in case a King Vulture or other cool raptor makes a pas overhead. Other stuff can show up along the stream and if you hear a mixed flock moving through the forest, you can always get off the bridge to chase it.
Mixed flocks: Keep looking for bird activity (as if you wouldn’t be doing thatanyways) to find mixed flocks with woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, and lots of other species. This is your best chance at finding a rare Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a definite future split from Amazonian Long-taileds).
Patience: This is always a virtue for birding and especially so inside any rainforest. The birds are there, just keep carefully listening and looking and you will see more. An experienced guide helps too of course.

blue-dacnis

With patience, you might find a low fruiting vine attended by Blue Dacnis and other tanager species.

Watch your step, don’t leave the trail: Just a final reminder to always watch where you step because Fer-de-Lances are out there and this venomous species isn’t all that rare. Although one might be on the trail, thay would be pretty unusual because the high degree of foot traffic probably keeps them off the path. This is also why you should stay on the path and not walk into the forest. Off the trail, it’s harder to see where you step, easier for a snake to hide, and you aren’t supposed to leave the trail anyways.

Hope to see you in the forest!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Carara is Hot and Dry in April but the birding is still good

I guided some folks for a couple of days at Carara 2 weeks ago. As always, the birding was good; a walk in the forest near the HQ in the morning and a mangrove boat ride in the afternoon yielded 128 species. It sure was hot though; hot and dry! This is the end of the dry season in Costa Rica; the end of “summer’ for the locals. Although it hasn’t rained yet, it’s getting cloudier by the day and when those clouds burst, it’s gonna to be a daily rainfest. Shortly after the rains begin anew, Carara will green up again (and get flooded in parts). On April 10th, though, the leaves crackled under foot and the sun beat down mercilessly. At least it was cooler inside the forest.

I started the day at the bridge over the Tarcol River. Even at dawn, a few people were moving single file down the narrow sidewalk to get looks at the crocodiles. Later in the day, there is a constant crowd of people walking out to see those aquatic monsters. With the guardrails missing in places, it’s amazing that some unlucky drunk fellow hasn’t fallen over to be horrifically devoured. The crocs are certainly large enough to do it!

Scanning for birds, I saw several heron species, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt and a few groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. This is par for the course at the bridge. That particular dawn, I also saw 100s of Baltimore Orioles flying from their roosts towards the forests of Carara, along with many Barn Swallows and common open country stuff like Melodious Blackbird, Kiskadees, White-winged Doves, etc.

Melodious Blackbird has firmly established itself in Costa Rica.

Since taxis and buses were absent on Good Friday, I walked the 3 or 4 kilometers to the entrance. It was a nice morning walk actually with lots of bird activity along the way including Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendola; uncommon species for Carara.

The parking lot at HQ is a great place to see common species such as Rose-throated Becard. This is a female; in my opinion better looking than the male in Costa Rica. Although in Mexico, the bird truly has a rose-colored throat, here in Costa Rica, the male is all dark. In the same tree, I had Violaceous Trogon, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Yellow-throated Euphonia while a Northern Waterthrush was yearning for water at the edge of the parking lot.

Philadelphia Vireo- one of the most common wintering birds around Carara.

We entered the Universal Trail (named as such because it is handicap accessible) and slowly made our way through the drier secondary growth. We saw lots more Becards, Common Tody, Streaked and Piratic Flycatchers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Trogon and other common species. We also had great studies of Greenish Elaenia and Yellow-Olive Flycatchers- both common birds of Carara.

Just as we reached the primary forest, we had good looks at a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons as a Jacamar called in the distance. Our walk through the primary forest was quite productive, especially for flycatchers. Overall it was a great day for flycatchers with 25 species by dusk! In various mixed flocks typical for Carara, we had Cocoa and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Russet Antshrike (just one shy bird), Ruddy-tailed, Sulphur-rumped, Ochre-bellied, Yellow-bellied and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Lesser and Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1 Tropical Parula, gorgeous Bay-headed Tanagers and White-shouldered and Summer Tanagers.

An amazing sight; a Lesser Greenlet staying still!!

Outside of mixed flocks we did alright too with Purple-crowned Fairy, Steely-vented Hummingbird, excellent looks at feeding Brown-hooded Parrots, Baird’s Trogon (had to work for that one), a few White-whiskered Puffbirds, Chestnut-backed Antbird, both Spadebill species, Royal Flycatcher building a nest, lots of Northern Bentbills, and excellent looks at Spot-crowned Euphonia.

Northern Bentbill

male Spot-crowned Euphonia

Manakins seemed to be absent and I’m not sure where the Wrens, Black-faced Antthrush and Antpitta were hiding but it was a good four hours of birding nonetheless. We lunched at the closest, nicest place; Villa Lapas.

Villa Lapas is pricey but has good accommodations, service and restaurant. The grounds are also pretty birdy and they have a bridge/canopy walkway.

During lunch, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron worked the stream,

and a pair of Green Kingfishers entertained.

After lunch and a short rest, we were off to the mangrove birding tour. As in some other tourist frequented sites, around Carara, the taxis were charging a mint to get around; $10 for the short drive between Villa Lapas and the Carara HQ and $50 round trip to the mangrove birding tour. The regular price for a taxi in Costa Rica for the same distances should be at the most $4 and $24 respectively. Yet another reason to rent a car.

Anyways, at the boat dock we started seeing new birds straightaway; Amazon Kingfisher perched on the dock, our first of many Common Black Hawks, Anhinga and various herons. As the boat departed, a Zone-tailed Hawk swiftly soared across the river mouth and Black-necked Stilts became visible. During the boat trip, the pair of Mangrove Swallows that nest in a box in the boat accompanied us. Despite the high tide (not ideal for birding), we identified 77 species.

After checking the river mouth, we went up a channel through tall mangroves. As with any mangrove boat trip I have done, the mangroves are tall and it’s a cool habitat but the birds are pretty scarce. We saw a few herons and got nice looks at Ringed Kingfisher then picked up Common Ground Dove (which was interesting because there wasn’t any dry ground) and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The Peppershrike was a nice surprise. This widespread neotropical species is rather uncommon in Costa Rica and mostly found in underbirded areas such as the Central Valley and mangroves. After the Peppershrike excitement, we investigated a smaller mangrove channel and stopped to play tape of various species. Although we didn’t get any responses from the Wood-rail or Woodcreepers, we got nice looks at Panama Flycatcher and Common Black Hawks and one of our group almost certainly saw Mangrove Hummingbird.

Back out in the main channel, we taped in one of the common mangrove specialties; Mangrove Vireo then headed upriver. With the sun to our backs, we had beautiful looks at any birds that flew in front of us. One of the best was a quick flyby of Crane Hawk, its redddish legs standing out in the sun. We also had many Red-billed Pigeons and started to get parrot flybys as the afternoon progressed. We had a few macaws although Red-lored and Mealy Parrots were the most frequent parrot species. A green field was filled with Barn, Southern Rough-winged and a few Cliff Swallows while Costa-rican Swifts fed low over the water. One of our best birds was Double-striped Thick-knee; a pair lounging in a sparsely vegetated rocky area with half buried tires and other pieces of trash. This noctural shorebird of dry fields occurs in the extensive pastures visible from the bridge but is tough to see away from the boat tour.

Somewhere out there is a Double-striped Thick-knee, a bird that by name and appearance belongs in a Roald Dahl story.

Whimbrels were common. We also saw loads of Spotted Sandpipers, several Willets and Ruddy Turnstones.

We ended the tour with a beautiful sunset, Lesser Nighthawks feeding near the river mouth and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls calling near the dock for yet another great day of birding around Carara National Park.