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Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands middle elevations

How to see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird

“Cephalopterus glabricollis”. I love the official, scientific term for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. It makes it sound like some massive-headed, ominous creature from the depths of darkest outer space that uses its supreme intelligence for ominous plans so nefarious that even the strongest among us (such as E.O. Wilson, the Dalai Lama, and Alex Trebek) would swoon with despair at the merest of glimpses into those dark machinations. Someone should make a movie….

In the meantime, unfortunately for most birders visiting Costa Rica, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is so hard to see that it might as well be from outer space. One of the largest Passerines in Costa Rica, this crow-sized bird has seriously declined with deforestation. While many species need just one type of forest for survival, unfortunately for the Umbrellabird, it needs at least two types of forest; lower middle elevation rain forest and lowland rainforest. Breeding in the mossy, very wet forests between 700 and 2,000 meters, this species spends the rest of the year in the hot, humid, Caribbean lowlands. While the lowlands are still there, most of the lowland forests aren’t, and since umbrellabirds don’t hang out in banana plantations or cattle pastures, they might be in serious trouble. It’s hard to say if so few individuals of this species are seen because they occur at naturally low densities or because their populations have declined because of massive deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands. In any case, this is definitely one rare bird. The experiences of those photographers and field naturalists extraordinaire, the Fogdens, mirror mine with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. In a paper they published in the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club (supercool- all celebs should join), the Fogdens mention how this species seems to have a patchy occurrence even within suitable looking looking habitat. I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered why I don’t see the Umbrellabird in what appears to be intact forest at the right elevation. I don’t think its a question of difficulty in seeing this species either because on the few occasions I have seen a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the birds were always easy to see, stayed in the subcanopy, and weren’t particularly shy; the same impression it has had upon other birders I have spoken with. In any case, I think its apparent rarity merits surveys carried out on its breeding grounds (albeit a very difficult endeavor), and in the foothill forests and patches of lowland forests (much more feasible) of the Caribbean slope. In conjunction with surveys, at least some assessment of the fruits it utilizes should also be done to possibly help this species through propagation of its food sources. Although I suspect it needs intact forest to survive (as it also feeds on large katydids, stick insects, and small invertebrates), I think such a study would be worthwhile.

In addition to a bit of rambling about studies I would love to do, I hope the information above gives you some idea of why you didn’t see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird on your visit to Costa Rica. However, if you have yet to visit Costa Rica for wonderful birding, butterflying, getting rained on, and eating rice and beans, don’t swoon with hopeless dismay at the prospect of not seeing a Bare-necked Umbrellabird. They do occur more regularly in some places than others and there are a few things you can do to increase your chances at connecting with this Elvis Presley of birds (don’t believe me? –take a look at its hairdo!).

During the breeding season (probably March to July), you might have more luck with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird by visiting a lek on its breeding grounds. Until other accessible leks are found, an adventurous trip only for those fit enough to hike a few hours downhill (and then back up to get out) to the San Gerardo Field Station of the Monteverde Preserve could be the most reliable way to see this species. March is the time of year to go to this field station, which, if you don’t see the Umbrellabird at least has excellent birding for other foothill species. There are one or two lekking sites near the station, which have had fewer birds in recent years for unknown reasons. Although the birds are only active at dawn and display from high up in the trees, the sight of bizarre male Umbrellabirds inflating their red throat patches while making low-pitched hooting noises will give you a birding high that might keep you awake for a few days.

If you aren’t visiting Costa Rica in March or don’t fancy a long hike to see the Umbrellabird, the other most reliable site for this mega species is at the Aerial Tram near Braulio Carrillo National Park. The Bare-necked Umbrellabird is seen most days at this site and the expert guides, most of whom are serious birders, keep up to date on sightings of this and other species. One a recent excursion to the Aerial Tram as part of a high-school trip where my wife teaches, we had good looks at one male Bare-necked Umbrellabird (my first for the year!). Although they are sometimes seen during the ride through the canopy, this one was hanging around the main buildings.

Although I don’t have photos of the Umbrellabird, here is what some of the canopy ride looks like.

The canopy ride was beautiful and our friendly guide top-notch. Although the habitat is fantastic foothill rainforest, the birding during the ride was pretty slow (as is typical during the tram ride). Birding is much better on the trails or around the main buildings. The only bad thing about this place is that you have to take an expensive tour for access. They don’t allow one to simply walk in and use the trails and have seemed pretty adamant about this which seems to be not very birder friendly in my opinion. I must stress that, however, the bad points of the Aerial Tram are associated with management working from some disassociated office and is not related in any way to the excellent, friendly, guides and staff who work on site.

The other main area to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird and where most birders have seen it is at the La Selva Biological Research Station. Visiting the forests of the station offer a fair chance at seeing Umbrellabird sometime during your stay. Taking the guided tour (compulsory for a day visit) at La Selva will increases your chances at seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at most times of the year-just make sure you tell the guide how important it is for you see this it. Once again, if you don’t stay overnight at the station, you can only access the forests on one of their guided tours which are at least more affordable than those of the Aerial Tram.

Away from La Selva, other regular sites for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird are other forests in the Sarapiqui area such as Selva Verde, the forests around Arenal such as the Hanging Bridges and trails at Arenal Obsevatory Lodge, and Heliconias Lodge at Bijagua. No matter where you go to look for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, your best bet at finding them is to watch out for mixed flocks of toucans and oropendolas. Anytime you see a group of Aracaris, and especially if you run into a large flock of Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, keep your eye out for this elusive Elvis-like bird. If you think you see a crow, remember, the only crow-like bird in Costa Rica is the Bare-necked Umbrellabird.

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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.