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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration raptors

Sunday Merlin Surprise

Most mornings, I am out of bed shortly after dawn. In Costa Rica, that translates to the calling time of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Rufous-naped Wrens; somewhere around five-thirty. I do the early thing because that’s when the birds are active, that’s when I can focus on birds from the back balcony and get mentally prepared for the day. This past Sunday, I had a good excuse to wake up later, valid excuses to sleep in and catch up on rest. It was the day after Global Bird (Big) Day (GBD), a day when I had done my part to bird as much as possible.

On GBD, a birder doesn’t need to be awake before dawn so they can listen to the night sky. You don’t have to be out there birding at the break of day, nor keep the birding going, keep on moving when you feel tired. There is no requirement for celebrating a day dedicated to birds and birding but if you roll like me, expect a long one, expect to stay focused on birds just about until you drop. If more birds are what you want, being awake pays off even during the night. Otherwise, I would have missed the calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, that one call of my year Gray-cheeked Thrush (!), the barks of a Mottled Owl.

This past October 17th, although Team Tyto didn’t pull any all nighters or even bird until exhaustion takes over, we still had a long, wonderful day of birding. I’ll probably talk about that some other time or maybe cover it in a post at 10,000 Birds. For now, though, I’ll just mention the Sunday Merlin surprise.

As I was saying, I had a good excuse to sleep in on Sunday but how so during the height of migration? That knowledge of possibilities got me out of bed and to the coffeemaker. It brought me to the back balcony with a cup of high quality Costa Rican brewed fuel in hand. I watched and listened, I didn’t see much, but this was still migration, anything could happen.

Maybe it was time to check the news, eat breakfast. Maybe the birds had taken a day off after starring in the best live reality in town? As I pondered whether to trade watching for practicing a Chen form or some other type of focused exercise, a sudden movement of the avian type brought me back to my birding senses.

Out of nowhere, with a flurry of feathers, a small raptor appeared directly in front of my field of view! Too close and quick for binoculars, much to my good fortune, it immediately landed in the dead tree just out back. Before I realized it, I was watching the bird through optics and could see that it was a young Merlin!

A regular but local migrant in Costa Rica, this was one of the birds I had hoped to chance upon during my mornings at the balcony. If I was going to see one, I figured it would take the form of a small, quick bird zipping overhead. That’s how I usually see this species and I’m sure more than one has flown through my skies while I sat inside, watching the computer screen, unaware of its lethal presence. I never expected a Merlin to land in that tree just out back and even better, it stayed more than long enough to study it at close range and see that it had caught a Blue-and-White Swallow.

One of or many neighborhood Blue-and-White Swallows.
Merlin with swallow.

Although I didn’t actually see it make the catch, I am pretty sure that my year Merlin had caught it right in front of me. It happened that quick. Like the unfortunate swallow, I didn’t see the small falcon make its approach, I had no idea where it came from, I only saw it when it was too late, when it had the swallow in its long sharp claws. I doubt the small bird had suffered, I think it was dead on impact. It had certainly expired when its grim reaper brought it to the tree out back.

As the falcon plucked and ate the swallow, I wondered what other birds it had caught on its voyage here? Which warblers, swallows or other small birds had kept it going, had fueled its trip to my shores, Costa Rica? I remembered the other times I have seen Merlins and before then when I had longed to see one. Since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, to me, raptors were always the coolest of birds. It was simply amazing to see a kestrel in the field near our house in Niagara Falls. A pair sometimes flew out there and called, “killy, killy, killy!” Our beloved neighbor, Frank Paterniti (aka Grandpa Frank), called it a Sparrowhawk.

I don’t know if he would have referred to a Merlin as a Pigeon Hawk, I’m not sure if he knew that bird. I didn’t see one until years later in some other place but on occasion, they were surely nearby. A Merlin from the north was occasionally zipping overhead during migration and in the winter, menacing smaller birds and chasing crows off roofs. Once in an industrial area of Buffalo, I did see one doing just that, it had no need to do so but it didn’t stop until each one of a dozen American Crows had taken flight!

Merlin ponders over which birds to beat up on next…

Seeing the small falcon out back reminded me of the Merlins I eventually saw in boreal places, waiting at the edges of large lakes to catch a siskin or any small bird whose luck had ran out. There was that Merlin that harried a big flock of chickadees at Whitefish Point, it kept at them until it finally did catch one that had ventured a bit too far. I once found a Merlin in summer in the Colorado Rockies, the habitat was like the boreal zone only with big mountains, that bird had surely taken up residence.

The ones I see in Costa Rica mostly fly along the Caribbean Coast, that’s where a birder can espy a dozen or more in a day, where their presence over rainforest decorated with calling toucans is a reminder of the connections between the boreal and the tropical. Our young post GBD Merlin eventually flew off, I wonder where it will spend the winter?

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Why Get a Field Guide for Costa Rica Now?

With the world on hold, now might not seem to be the ideal time to plan a birding trip. It might not appear to be the best moment to buy a field guide, look into tours, and figure out which birds a birder wants to see the most.

The Ornate Hawk-Eagle is high on the target list of many a birder.

Although it’s arguably silly to plan a tour for a given date without knowing when the destination will be open, now is actually perfect to think about traveling for birding, buying field guides, and dreaming of target species. Here’s why:

Destinations Will Eventually Open

Any type of limbo can present serious challenges to seeing the end of the tunnel because in the absence of a definite time frame, it’s that much harder to envision when something will happen. We think of the future and it seems to be blocked by black velvet paintings of uncertainty, by what ifs and unforeseen problems. When that happens, we need to sit back, have a tequila or eat a donut or whatever you need to do to ground yourself and push the mental curtains of uncertainty aside to be able to look at things through realistic, hopeful eyes. In the case of world travel, it’s more than likely that countries will eventually open back up and when they do, they will be more than eager for visitors. It will be a fantastic time to travel and it will eventually happen. Nothing better to do that be ready for it!

It Pays to be Prepared for a Birding Trip

Speaking of being ready for a trip, birding trips require a special degree of preparation. Yeah, you could jump on a plane to Australia or Fiji at a moment’s notice but you wouldn’t be any bit of ready for the birding. You would have no idea what to look for, what to identify, where to go, nor where to stay. It would sort of be like some happy go lucky nightmare situation. Whether visiting Polynesia, France, or Costa Rica, it’s far better to be over prepared than wondering what you are looking at and lamenting about birds and cool places missed during and after the trip. The more time you have to study, the less stressful and more fulfilling the trip will be. With that in mind, start studying for Costa Rica now to have the best and most satisfying trip possible.

You don’t want to miss seeing an Emerald Tanager.

Get a field guide in advance and you can take as much time as you want to learn about the lifers you will eventually see. Learn about different families of birds, learn how to identify everything from woodcreepers to hummingbirds, pick the birds you want to see the most. In the case of a digital field guide, you can mark target species, study birds by region, by family, make notes, and listen to their songs while looking at images of the birds you hope to see.

Part of the Fun is Getting Ready for the Trip

Not to mention, a big part of going somewhere isn’t just being there for the experience. It’s also getting ready for the trip, looking into places, trying to get an idea, a picture of what to expect. It doesn’t just make for better preparation, thinking about that trip also gives you something to look forward to, life goals to meet, and most of all, birds waiting to be seen. Check out field guides, decide which ones to get and buy them. Once you have that book in hand, that digital field guide on your phone, you are already on your way to Costa Rica.

Time On Our Hands

If anything, during a pandemic, many a birder has more time on his or her hands. It’s a perfect time to look into and study for future trips. Use these days, these months, to get ready for birding far afield.

Supporting Tours is Support for Conservation

I should also mention that looking into tours now and maybe even signing up for one translates to support for conservation. Most birding tours actively support local conservation efforts either directly and/or indirectly. The sooner you can safely reserve or sign up for lodging or a birding tour, the sooner you will be making a difference for people who often act as the front line of protection for tropical forests.

Conservation for endangered species like the Great Green Macaw.

Think Positive!

Most days, the news isn’t exactly on the bright side of the spectrum but that doesn’t change the fact that many vaccines are being worked on, many people are doing their best to make it through this pandemic and safely open as soon as possible, and that this will eventually pass. Stay safe, support conservation and start planning for that trip, the birds will be waiting.

Want to think about birding in Costa Rica? You can’t go wrong with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book with information on where to go birding, what the birding is like in Costa Rica, and how to identify many of the species waiting to be seen.

Fancy birds like the Violet-headed Hummingbird.

As far as field guides go, the book I recommend is the handy and excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean. The size of the book is right as are the excellent illustrations, information and range maps.

Since no modern birding trip would be complete without a digital field guide, I also recommend the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Yes, I do work on it and because we want birders to have a trip of a lifetime, we have made a steady set of improvements since its inception. A birder can now customize their app with target lists, notes on birds, good range maps, and much more. Since the latest update includes information and range maps for every bird on the Costa Rica list, multiple images for 919 species, and sounds for 829 of them, this birding app is just as excellent for reference and planning for a trip as it is in the field (even I use it pretty much every day!).

Start planning a trip to Costa Rica today, birds like this Fiery-throated Hummingbird will be waiting.

Categories
Costa Rica birding app

Updating the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide App

While out birding or guiding, I usually have a camera on hand. Having
become part of the modern day birding kit, that would be expected. But, the funny thing is, I don’t take that many pictures of birds. I guess I would but I already have more than enough images of hundreds of species, especially the common, easy to shoot ones like flycatchers, toucans, and Short-tailed Hawks.

I still bring the camera, though, but more for shots of birds in flight, rarities, and just in case probability takes an unlikely right turn in my direction to bring me good shots of Tawny-faced Gnatwren or other deviously difficult birds to photograph. I don’t take such pictures to expand my portfolio, I release the shutter with the hope of adding more images to the birding apps I work on. They have to be quality images and since the Costa Rica Field Guides app now shows images for more than 900 species, there aren’t too many more that I can get pictures of anyways.

However, there’s always that chance that I will suddenly have that skulking gnatwren or Tawny-crowned Greenlet paused and in good light, or get good shots of some of the swifts. However unlikely those scenarios may be, as with winning a lottery, they are still possible and the more I encounter those birds, as per the laws of probability, the more likely such photographic chances will present themselves.

But, fortunately for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, I am far from the only person contributing images. In addition to the hundreds of excellent photos contributed by Randall Ortega Chaves (one of the co-founders of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app), several people have helped us with images of a host of other difficult species. Many of the images are actually birds common elsewhere but a challenge to find and photograph in Costa Rica, birds like Great Shearwater, White Tern, and Northern Pintail. Although a birder might not be looking for those species in Costa Rica, or be likely to see them, we include those and every species on the official list for the country because that’s what a complete field guide should do. With that in mind, contributed are greatly appreciated and is why contributors are listed on the app, the app website, and, if desired, promoted on the app Facebook page.

Since the creation of the app, we have also routinely provided free updates with more images, vocalizations, and other information. Recently, we did another one, these are some of the new images:

Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, many thanks to Pete Morris at Birdquest for being so generous with this and so many other excellent images including the Uniform Crake pictured below.

Seth Beaudrault gave us a few very nice images of Barred Hawk and Scaled Antpitta, as with the birds above, both are species already shown on the app but there’s nothing like having more quality images of really cool birds.

Many thanks also goes to Jean Bonilla, a guide in the Monteverde area who made it possible to finally show the Black-breasted Wood-Quail on the app. This is the excellent picture he took and contributed:

In going through my photos from the previous year, I also found some images to include. They aren’t pictures of birds in perfect views but that’s actually why I put them on the app. The birding days are grand when all the birds show themselves in perfect light. However, since such days are also as rare as sightings of the RVG Cuckoo, I think it’s important for a field guide to also picture birds as they are often seen; in substandard light and in odd positions.

Birds like this Nutting’s Flycatcher,

this view of Western Kingbird,

and this White-necked Puffbird.

The app also now shows more images of ducks and a few other birds in flight and additional images of Rough-legged Tyrannulet and other uncommon species. We are just a few short images away from picturing every species on the list, if you would like to help us out, please contact me at information@birdingcraft.com These are the final birds we are looking for!-

  • Mangrove Rail
  • Ocellated Crake
  • Paint-billed Crake
  • Violaceous Quail-Dove
  • Cocos Cuckoo
  • Cocos Flycatcher
  • Cocos Finch
  • Short-tailed Nighthawk
  • Great Swallow-tailed Swift
  • White-chinned Swift
  • Red-fronted Parrotlet
  • Black-headed Antthrush
  • Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner
  • Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
  • Tawny-crowned Greenlet
  • Tawny-faced Gnatwren
  • Lined Seedeater,
  • Sulphur-rumped Tanager

As always, I hope to see you birding somewhere in Costa Rica!

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

6 Days in Costa Rica, 300 Bird Species

The number of bird species that occur in Costa Rica is kind of off the charts. Yes, Colombia has the most and Mexico even has a bigger list than Tiquicia but in terms of avian diversity per square meter, Costa Rica is hard to beat. Tired of seeing lifers in the bird-rich Caribbean lowlands? An additional suite of tanagers, antbirds, and others are a short drive away. Want more hummingbird? Head higher into the mountains and all the hummingbirds are new along with a healthy set of near endemics.

Near endemics like that bird with the bulldog look, Prong-billed Barbet.

Go to the other side of the mountains and more birds are possible. Suffice to say, in Costa Rica, a bonanza of birding awaits and good roads make it easy! I was thinking about just that while guiding a small group of friends two weeks ago. As we visited such sites as Tolomuco, the Dota Valley, and the Caribbean lowlands, the birds added up, and many were high quality, much desired species. During that time frame, more than 300 species were identified, and more than a few were added on the final days of the trip with another guide. Not only did we see around 300 species of birds during the first 6 days, but we also had many birds that were uncommon and/or difficult.

Birds like Great Potoo.

These are some of the highlights:

Resplendent Quetzal

One of the most spectacular bird species in the world can’t help but be a perpetual highlight. We had especially good looks at a roadside male in the Dota Valley. Lately, quetzals have also been showing on the road to Poas, it should get even better as the avocado fruit crop ripens in the next few weeks.

Other key highland species: Silvery-throated Jay

Although most of the high elevation birds are fairly easy to see, a few others can be a real challenge to find. One of those key rare species is the Silvery-throated Jay. Unlike some other Corvids, this small dark blue jay needs high quality primary forest and even then it’s not that common. With that in mind, finding two in the primary forests on Savegre’s Robles Trail was an excellent way to end a great day of birding.

31 species of Hummingbirds

And that’s not counting the Band-tailed Barbthroats that were heard nor the guide only Bronzy Hermit seen at Quinta de Sarapiqui! Thanks to feeders and flowering bushes, we had a fine haul of hummingbirds including White-tipped Sicklebill. Tolomuco was especially good and gave us sightings of Volcano, Scintillant, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, White-tailed and Garden Emeralds, and other species.

Scintillant Hummingbird

White-throated Mountain-gem was also nice.

Great Green Macaws, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and White-fronted Nunbirds in the Sarapiqui Lowlands

Birding in the Sarapiqui lowlands paid off with more than 150 bird species identified in one action packed day along with views of White-fronted Nunbirds, Pied Puffbird (plus White-necked heard), Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, White-ringed Flycatcher, and many more. Great Green Macaws were seen feeding at close range, and we finished the day with close views of Vermiculated Screech-Owl. All of our birding took place on the La Selva entrance road, another excellent birding road that loops behind the Selva Verde property, and roads near Quinta de Sarapiqui.

Cinchona, Guarumo, and Cope

Stops at various sites with fruit feeders rounded out the trip. Both barbets, Northern Emerald Toucanet, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and even Black Guan (!) showed at Cinchona. Guarumo, a rather new site near Cope’s places, had point blank views of both large toucans and various other lowland species, and Cope’s gave us the sicklebill and American Pygmy Kingfisher as soon as we arrived!

As far as the birding goes, it was pretty fantastic every day of the trip but as always, the biggest highlight was guiding people who truly relish the experience. Hope you have a good birding trip to Costa Rica!

A couple of final reminders-

If you are looking for a tour or need arrangements for your trip, I can help, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Get the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app to study for the trip, make checklists of target species and bird with your own digital field guide.

Get my e-book How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica for 700 plus pages of information on where to find birds in Costa Rica and how to see them. Your purchase is much appreciated and supports this blog!

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip sounds of Costa Rican birds

What do Those Costa Rican Birds Say?

I recently realized that I was far more removed from popular global culture and fads than I had ever imagined. That realization took place during a Skype video call with my parents when they asked me if I had seen the “What Does the Fox Say” thing. I responded that no, I had no idea what they were talking about. They said that they weren’t sure what it was either but that everyone was talking about it. So, nearly a week later, I finally searched for this fox thing and lo and behold it’s a crazy viral video and more than 200 million people know all about it. I also like it and it’s just the type of hilarious silly thing that certain friends of mine and I would have created had we had the time to do so. I love the fact that the popularity of this Norwegian ditty has finally topped that of Norway’s other main claim to popular music fame, A-Ha’s “Take on Me” (which is overplayed on at least once Costa Rican radio station). The silliness of the song sort of reminds me of the satirical and equally awesome Troll Hunter movie (all fans of the fantasy genre must watch!) but is far removed from the excellent, emotive, and more serious music composed by the Kings of Convenience. Most of all, though, the crazy viral fox video has inspired me to write a post about the things said by Costa Rican Birds. No, it won’t be a video because I don’t have the time nor tech know-how to produce such a damn cool thing but I hope you enjoy this post anyways.

Unlike foxes in Norway, we know what most of those Costa Rican Bird say. The Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher looks as if it’s going to say, “Yoo hoo, guess what I am! An oriole? A Tanager? Wrong again humans! I’m some high elevation berry eating thing with fine, silky feathers”.

A male Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher ready to explode after eating maybe a thousand berries.

Actually, they say very little. Check out the sound of a Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher.

What about the Wrenthrush? This is another highland weirdo. It masquerades as an out of place, Asian Tesia and says, “Ha! Try to see me now! I’m as hyperactive as a Chihuahua on Mountain Dew! Take a picture…not!”

A Wrenthrush risks it all and comes out into the open.

Now you know exactly what this bird is saying when you hear its high-pitched calls issuing from a dense patch of bamboo: Wrenthrush

How about another highland bird species? The Prong-billed Barbet has a crazy voice and it says exactly what it sounds like it’s saying, “Yodel, yodel,yodel,yodel,yodel…”.

Shall we yodel again?

Yes, this cloud forest oddity is a determined yodeler: Prong-billed Barbet Note Rufous-browed Peppershrike there as well.

Of course, not all Costa Rican birds are stranger than fiction. Some sing stirring, beautiful songs and they say, “Listen to me. Listen to these avian siren melodies that chase away the shadows of worry and compliment the subtle harmonies of water dripping from clumps of moss and the tips of orchids”.  This is some of what the Black-faced Solitaire says. A good candidate for being the most solemn, serious singer on the block, it probably has the most pleasing song in the country although it has close contenders in the form of the Nightingale Wren and Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush. Compare for yourself:

Black-faced Solitaire

Nightingale Wren song

Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush

At lower elevations, the bird song chorus becomes nearly as busy as the din of a Manhattan sidewalk. Keel-billed Toucans croak away like lost, feathered frogs, parrots rend the air with screeching sounds, Long-billed Gnatwrens give their pixie-like laugh, wrens blast the vegetation with loud, ringing melodies (check out the Black-throated), woodcreepers whistle away from the gloom of the morning forest, and Great Tinamous say, “I am the true ghost of the woods. Find me if you can but know that my kind has been evading predators for more than 15 million years”. A Great Tinamou sings from the forest interior: Great Tinamou.

A Keel-billed Toucan is kind of...well...colorful.

Keel-billed Toucan

A Black-throated Wren attempts to hide behind a branch.

Black-throated Wren

Common garden species also have plenty to say, especially the Clay-colored Thrush during the end of the dry season and beginning of the wet. Just so you know, it says, “No, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up. Never shut up, have to find a mate, defend this territory, sing non-stop, no I won’t shut up…” . And no, it really doesn’t stop singing at that time of the year.

This funky immature Clay-colored Thrush just cannot wait to fill its surroundings with song.

Clay-colored Thrush and such other birds as Tropical Screech Owl and Blue-crowned Motmot in this dawn chorus along with the requisite barking dog.

You will also hear the nagging sounds of the Boat-billed Flycatcher, “Naaaaag! Naaaag! What the hell are you looking at!”

Boat-billed Flycatcher That chip in the background is a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

Another interpretation of a Boat-billed Flycatcher's "song": "Great Kiskadee, shmreite kiskadee. Who's got the bigger bill in the house? Yeah, thought so"!

Yes, that big-billed kiskadee creature does have issues but let’s not forget that we are mere observers. Let them chase each other around and vent their mysterious anger.

Saving the best for last, we come back to the weird and wonderful with the Three-wattled Bellbird. Yes, non-birders, snicker if you like but dammit, it describes both the bird’s appearance and its song so the joke’s on you NOB!

A male Three-wattled Bellbird.

It just says, “Creak, creak…BONK!”

Three-wattled Bellbird This is the much louder noise than the Long-tailed Manakin and cow that just had to compete for attention with a “moo”.

I have no idea what the bellbird is really saying there because I have yet to untangle the mysterious language of the cotingas.

There’s like nearly 900 other species to talk about too but in the absence of timewarp technology, I only have space to write about a handful of these Costa Rican birds. The best way to experience them is of course to come on down to Tiquicia (that’s the local vernacular for Costa Rica) and take a listen for yourself. You could also get ready for your trip by listening to my recordings of more than 350 species out of 560 plus species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, or if you don’t want to make a holiday gift of that digital field guide for yourself, you can still check out some sweet sights, sounds, and info of Costa Rican birds by downloading the free lite version.