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.
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:
Marbled Wood-Quail (still pretty tough to see there)
Great Curassow (pretty rare but more likely here than on the other trail)
Charming Hummingbird (also on the other trail but seems easier in the forest)
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.
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.
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!