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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds preparing for your trip

The El Tapir Hummingbird Hotspot has Been Destroyed

Update about El Tapir- Since I wrote this post, happily, the Porterweed bushes have grown back and the place is still great for Snowcap and other hummingbird species. When I wrote this. it didn’t seem likely because every bit of green in the garden looked herbicided, brown, and dead. Current entrance fee is $12 and also includes use of the trails. The forest is excellent foothill birding but be careful about the high number of small ticks on the trails.

El Tapir was this fantastic birding site in Costa Rica that mysteriously became defunct about ten years ago. Situated a few kilometers after Quebrada Gonzalez along the highway that connects San Jose and Limon, it provided access to foothill forests that buffer Braulio Carrillo National Park. There were a couple of trails into this beautiful, mossy habitat, one of which led to a stream where you could see Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

On the way to the stream, there were amazing mixed flocks, Dull-mantled Antbird, and all the other foothill specialties. I also saw my best antswarm in Costa Rica along that trail- although the ground-cuckoo and Black-crowned Antpittas had apparently taken the day off or were competing with each other in a skulking contest,  everything else was there. By everything, I mean Barred Forest-Falcon, Rufous Motmot, Striped Woodhaunter, Song Wren, Northern Barred and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and those stars of the show: Bicolored Antbird, Spotted Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, and the fastidiously clean Immaculate Antbird. At one time, this latter species was known as Zeledon’s Antbird. That’s the name I learned in the decades old Irby Davis field guide for Central America and I kind of wish that name would come back because it has such a ring to it- rather like the name of a rapper or a a foe of Conan the Barbarian.

“Who’s that imposing, musclebound, hooded guy with the blue paint around his eyes?” asks one of Conan’s temporary sidekicks.

To which Conan replied, “Crom! That be my foe ZELEDON! The prophets say that one day a feathered one that follows army ants will be named after him.”

“Huh?!” (it was some centuries or ages before the idea of birding for fun was invented)

“Oh never mind. The prophets are always spouting nonsense anyways- saying things like one day people will watch birds through magic eye pieces. If I weren’t a barbarian, I would laugh in a hearty, good-natured manner at such a silly idea instead of doing my usual hoarse, hacking guffaws heavy with the effects of mead. Enough! Time to challenge ZELEDON!….”

Anyways, El Tapir was one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica and it probably still is but the nets of the butterfly garden have fallen into mold-patched disarray, the buildings are empty and probably home to hordes of scorpions, and the trails probably aren’t trails anymore. Cabins were also being built but were never completed. If they would have been finished, I tell you this would have ranked among the best accommodations for birding in Costa Rica. I have no idea what happened but suspect that it had something to do with that evil and insane affliction of governments called bureaucracy or that the money ran out.

So the El Tapir began to resemble some haunted place in the tropics that had started out as a bastion of hope and sunshine until the decay of the jungle slowly worked its natural, nefarious magic via the vectors of disease, itchy fungus, and eventual madness until the survivors ran for their lives…BUT the bold and courageous hummingbirds carried on (well, they were always there but someone has to play the hero in this story and because barbarians aren’t allowed to be heroes, hummingbirds are the chosen ones)!

Formerly trimmed patches of Porterweed exploded with flowers and took over the abandoned gardens and grounds. For hummingbirds, this was nothing short of trick or treating in rich neighborhoods while Halloween just repeats itself day after day after day.

Green Thorntail birding Costa Rica

Green Thorntails buzzed around like a swarm of bees.

Snowcap birding Costa Rica

Snowcaps set up shop.

Violet-headed Hummingbird birding Costa Rica

Violet-headed Hummingbirds moved into the neighborhood.

The place became a veritable supermarket for the Colibridae, a metropolis for small nectar feeding creatures, and a jackpot for hundreds of birders who have popped in to get their lifer Snowcap or take photos.

HOWEVER, all of that changed sometime during the past two weeks.

During a day of birding Quebrada Gonzalez with Michael Retter and Alan Knue (they were down in Costa Rica for two weeks of scouting out bird sites for tours and getting Talamancan lifers), we scooted over to El Tapir to get more looks at Snowcaps (you can never get enough of that bird) and maybe glimpse a Black-crested Coquette when we came upon a strange sight.

The overgrown hummingbird hotspot looked oddly clear and upon closer examination, all of the Porterweed bushes appeared to be dying! Aside from a Green Hermit that happily zipped around from heliconia to heliconia, there were no other hummingbirds! It was a good thing that Michael and Alan had seen loads of Snowcaps two weeks before because on Saturday, there was almost nothing. Nary a Snowcap. Not even a Rufous-tailed. None. Nada. Zilch.

We could only surmise that whomever was taking care of the place had finally decided to eliminate the flowering bushes that were so delectable to dozens of hummingbirds. The hummingbirds will hopefully find food elsewhere but birders hoping for a quick and easy Snowcap at El Tapir will from now on be out of luck.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction lowlands preparing for your trip

Birds to know when birding Costa Rica: the Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Before going on a birding trip to some far off wonderful place where nearly everything is a lifer, we gaze at our field guides and it’s like a flashback to the Decembers of our childhoods. The bird book is like the front window of a toy store, a catalog showing bicycles, binoculars (I started birding young), and a coveted Millenium Falcon or X-wing Fighter (!).

Before a first time birding trip to Costa Rica we say to ourselves, “I want to see that, and that, and that, and….definitely that purple and white hummingbird on page 137, and trogons, and a bellbird, a chlorophonia, a quetzal,and about 500 other species!”

The excitement of knowing that all of these amazing looking birds are possible can be dampened, however, once we pay attention to what the book says about the status and behavior of each species.

“Wow, look at that thing! Bare-necked Umbrellabird!! What is it? An avian tribute to Elvis Presley? A rock star crow? I have got to see that!”, and then with a glance at the text….

“Wait….it says that it’s uncommon to rare. Well, I still have a chance! What about Lovely Cotinga…that’s rare too? What IS IT with these bizarre things called cotingas?”

“Better look at the hummingbirds- at least I can see them at feeders. White-tipped Sicklebill! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Let’s see…….very uncommon. Ok, there has got to be some cool-looking birds that are common!”

“Here’s one on page 127- a purple and green hummingbird called the Violet-crowned Woodnymph!”

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

A male Violet-crowned Woodnymph in full iridescent splendor.

It takes some luck and local knowledge to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and White-tipped Sicklebill in Costa Rica but everyone should see a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. In fact, if you spend a day or two birding lowland or foothill rain forests in Costa Rica, you will probably run into several of them. Although the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird might be the de-facto king of flowers in non-forest habitats, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph calls the Colibrid shots inside the forest.

Sure, the trap-lining hermits are pretty common too but the most frequently-sighted hummingbird when birding rain forests in Costa Rica is the Violet-crowned Woodnymph. They buzz around flowering plants from the understory up into the canopy, test your reaction speed and eyesight by zipping onto hidden perches, and despite being common, befuddle birders to no end.

The problem with hummingbirds in the forest is that the rays of sunlight that make them glow like stained glass, rarely reach the ground after passing through the canopy vegetation. So, unless you can out the scope on that male woodnymph feeding on flowers 100 feet overhead, you can forget about its shining purple and green plumage; it’s going to look like some dark, anonymous hummingbird.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

The typical, dark appearance of a male Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

As tricky as shady-looking, understory woodnymph males may be to identify, the females present a bigger challenge for most birders. I think they so consistently throw birders in Costa Rica for a loop because they look nothing like the dark-plumaged males. Nevertheless, they have a contrasting gray throat that works as an excellent field mark because no other hummingbird that occurs with them shares this characteristic.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph female

Female Violet-crowned Woodnymphs showing their contrasting gray throats.

With a close look, males in the dim understory are also fairly easy to identify if one focuses on shape. Dark plumage, forked tail, and a, “oh so slightly” decurved bill equals Violet-crowned Woodnymph when birding humid lowland forests in Costa Rica.

Note the “oh so slightly” decurved bill and forked tail.

The Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of those common, Costa Rican bird species worthwhile to know before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn it well because you will definitely cross paths with several when birding humid lowland and foothill forests.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope feeders Hummingbirds middle elevations

More great birding near San Ramon, Costa Rica

I have been more or less stuck in the not so scenic, urbanized areas of Costa Rica for the past few weeks. Work and family duties (including a children’s birthday party replete with scary clown dancing to reggaeton blasted out of an amplifier) have kept me from birding the beautiful, exciting, rainforests and cloud forests of Costa Rica.

This past Saturday, though, I happily exchanged the cracked sidewalks, barking dogs, and honking cars for the fresh air, tropical forests, and tanagers of rainforests near San Ramon, Costa Rica.

I had the great fortune of guiding our local birding club (appropriately named, “The Birding Club of Costa Rica”) on a day trip to this wonderful, birdy area and although that was just a few days ago, I already can’t wait to go back.

The combination of light traffic, beautiful mountain scenery, accessible Caribbean slope foothill forest, and hummingbird action make this area a true, Costa Rican birding hotspot. Don’t be surprised if you have never read about this area in any trip reports though because it has been almost entirely overlooked by birders visiting Costa Rica. The probable reasons for this are because in the past, there was much less infrastructure, the road connecting San Ramon to La Tigra was pretty bad, and birders could see similar species at Virgen del Socorro.

However, since Virgen del Socorro is no longer a birding option, infrastructure has improved, and because the road is in great shape, every birder visiting Costa Rica should make efforts to include this area on their itinerary, especially so if they are headed to Arenal.

Although the hour and twenty minute drive from San Jose can be tiresome, at least its a scenic one after leaving San Ramon and heading through the cloudy pass that separates the Tilaran and Central mountain ranges.

Despite hot, sunny weather keeping bird activity to a minimum during much of the morning, we still recorded over 100 species on our day trip this past Saturday, our only waterbird being Northern Jacana.

One of our first birds was a White Hawk seen perched across the road from our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy. As we waited for the rest of the group and searched the treetops vain for Lovely Cotinga, other notables were Tawny-throated Leaftosser singing from a ravine and a gorgeous male, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis that briefly lit atop a distant tree.

birding Costa Rica White Hawk

White Hawks shine like fresh snow when the blazing, morning tropical sun lights them up.

Zip-lining mannequins assure that you can’t miss The San Luis Canopy.

Once the entire group was present, we drove 10 minutes to the entrance of our birding road at Los Lagos. The lakes gave us our jacana but nothing else save heard only White-throated Crake and a few other open country species. Further up the road, the sunny weather was great for butterflies but made for very slow birding. We heard a few things now and then like Spotted Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, and Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant but saw very little other than a lone Piratic Flycatcher, Purple-crowned Fairy, lazy Black Vultures, Bananaquit, and Green Honeycreeper.

birding rainforests San Ramon, Costa Rica

Birding the road to Manuel Brenes Biological Reserve

Although the sunny weather was keeping bird activity to a bare minimum, the dry weather was a nice break from the heavy rains that had been soaking the central valley for the past two weeks.

As we made our way up the road, I kept an eye out for fruiting trees and mixed flocks. Small red fruits on an Inga species attracted a bevy of Golden-browed Chlorophonias (at 800 meters, a bit lower than their usual haunts), more Green Honeycreepers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis but mixed flocks had evaded us so far.

By 10 A.M., we reached a place along the road that I call “the overlook”. It’s a high point that looks down into a valley where much of the forest has been replaced by rows of plants most commonly seen in offices throughout the world. There are still number of canopy trees left standing though, and it pays to scan them for birds. Since you can look down at the huge trees, it’s a bit like birding from a canopy tower and in the past I have seen toucans, aracaris, tanagers, raptors, etc. from this point. Because of the elevation and habitat, it also looks like a good spot for Lovely Cotinga.

birding Costa Rica habitat

The overlook.

On sunny Saturday, as good as the overlook appeared, we saw zero birds. The fact that clouds were forming, though, gave us some hope that bird activity would pick up before lunch. It did and it nearly came all at once.

A massive mixed flock greeted us after we descended into the valley from the overlook. They were moving so fast and furious through the back-lit trees that most went unidentified. Those birds that stayed long enough to be seen or who at least paused to call were:

Orange-bellied Trogon (3 or 4 graced the flock), Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, and Olive, Black and yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers.

Orange-bellied Trogon, birding Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogons are endemic to Costa Rica and Panama.

The views were frustrating but at least we were seeing birds! At this point, we made an about face because venturing further up the road would have required vehicles with four-wheel drive. As it had finally become overcast, birding on the way back out was an extreme contrast to our slow morning.

While stopping for a few Olive Tanagers, we had a major bird domino effect where one bird kept leading to another.  The Olive Tanager led us to another mixed flock that suddenly revealed itself in the form of Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Golden-crowned Warblers, more tanagers, and best of all, Brown-billed Scythebill (!).

While searching for this curlew billed woodcreeper, Yellow-eared Toucanet called nearby (!). As I looked for the toucanet (never did find it), two Purplish-backed Quail-Doves began to call (!). A Plain Antvireo revealed itself and the quail-doves glided across the road for brief but tickable views. A Rufous-tailed Jacamar then began to vocalize down the road so we walked over to it, promptly found it and while watching the jacamar, became aware of another, big mixed flock.

biridng Costa Rica Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Iridescent Rufous-tailed Jacamars are fairly common in the Tilaran mountains of Costa Rica.

One of the first birds I got onto was Green Shrike Vireo. This tough canopy skulker only showed itself to a few of the group but at least there were plenty of other birds to watch: Spotted Woodcreepers, another Brown-billed Scythebill giving perfect looks, White-ruffed Manakin, Tropical Gnatcatcher, several tanagers including the likes of White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Speckled in addition to everything we had at the other, big mixed flock.

It was fast, exciting birding but it was also time for lunch so as soon as the birds trouped out of sight, we headed back to our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy to dine at the Arboleda restaurant. The food was good as always although they had “gotten smart” and raised their prices by $1 to $2 per dish. They also changed up the dynamic of their hummingbird feeders which resulted in fewer species. Nevertheless, we still managed close looks at Violet-crowned Woodnymph (the dominator), Coppery-headed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Hermit, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

Hummingbird feeders birding Costa Rica

The hummingbird feeders at the Arboleda restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Green crowned brilliant

After lunch and hummingbirds, we drove back up the highway for about 5 minutes to check out more hummingbirds at a hummingbird and butterfly garden. For $5 per person, we watched the same species as the Arboleda restaurant in addition to Violet Sabrewing and White-bellied Mountain-gem. Overall, the hummingbird watching was better at this place. The butterfly garden was good and they also had two loop trails that accessed nice, middle elevation forest.

birding Costa Rica hummingbirds

The nice, educational hummingbird feeder set up.

Coppery-headed Emerald birding Costa Rica

Coppery-headed Emeralds were the dominant species at the hummingbird/butterfly garden. This Costa Rican endemic even chased away the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

Coppery-headed Emerald female

The female Coppery-headed Emerald looks pretty nice too.

The short loop trail is maintained whereas the second, longer one is slippery and muddy. We went on both and saw things like Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanager, Slaty Antwren, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slate-throated Redstart, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Our best birds were Blue and Gold Tanager both in the forest and right at the parking lot, and Rufous Motmot here at the upper limits of its range.

Rufous Motmot birding Costa Rica

Our Rufous Motmot posing in the dim understory. Check out the mud on its bill from excavating a hole.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating the muddy trail.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating a slippery log bridge over the Rufous Motmot’s hangout.

I’m not sure what time this place opens in the morning but I suspect that their under-birded forest harbors some sweet surprises (think quail-doves and antpittas). Although the forest isn’t very wide, the back part is connected to a large block of habitat.

Lot’s of birding and places to explore along the road between San Ramon and La Tigra- I can’t wait to go back!

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Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Costa Rica birds to know; Paltry Tyrannulet

Bird names run the gamut from the highly descriptive (Rose-breasted Grosbeak) and evocative (Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant) to the plain and simple (House Sparrow or Common Swift). In Costa Rica, one very common species even has a name that sounds downright pitiful; the Paltry Tyrannulet. Despite valiant attempts by Stiles and Skutch to change its name to Mistletoe Tyrannulet, a more upbeat, and accurate title evocative of sleighbells and frightening advances from egg-nogged partygoers, the ornithological powers that be still appear to support the repression of this little guy. I mean how many birders really want to see something whose name is synonymous with insignificance especially when it has contenders with fancy marketable titles like the smart and curious sounding Black-capped Pygmy-tyrant, the circus-like Northern Bentbill or that paparazzi magnet the Royal Flycatcher? Possibly Costa Rica’s most ignored, overlooked species, I have been witness to such shameful behavior by birders from the hot buggy lowlands all the way up to the misty highland forests of the Talamancas. It’s always the same story; the Tyrannulet calls over and over begging to be seen in just about every possible habitat BUT NOOOO it’s easier to stare at the soaring vultures, more tempting to train your binoculars on Acorn Woodpeckers, to run down the road after a Gray-necked Wood Rail (well, those do look pretty spiffy). Sure the Tyrannulet is small and hard to see in the canopy and looks like a small gray warbler-like thing but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find it, take a shot at identifying it. Sure its short monotone call doesn’t sound too inviting nor as interesting as the hauntingly beautiful songs of Solitaires, the ancient tremulous tones of Tinamous or the staccato auditory attack of the Tapaculos but that doesn’t mean we should take our cue from Simon Cowell (“I found it forgetful, boring, downright paltry”) and dismiss the P. Tyrannulet. As insignificant as it might look and sound, the behavior of this spunky little guy is far from boring and since it is one of the most common species in Costa Rica, the P. Tyrannulet should be watched for and learned. Stiles and Skutch weren’t kidding around when they proposed “Mistletoe Tyrannulet” for this flycatcher species. This flycatcher, instead of sallying out for prey like a kingbird, mostly eats mistletoe berries! Yes, a flycatcher that feeds on fruit! Not only that but the P. Tyrannulet looks like a warbler and acts like a warbler; in addition to feasting on mistletoe berries, it gleans the vegetation for arthropodic delights and cocks its tail up like a Chestnut-sided Warbler (another common species often found with the P. Tyrannulet). So, don’t be fooled by its name, the P. Tyranulet is a bird worth watching and will be found at every site you visit in Costa Rica.

Keep an eye and ear out for the P. Tyrannulet when birding in Costa Rica. Watch for a small warbler-like bird with a stubby, almost chickadee like bill and a line through the eye. Listen for the brief monotone call of the P. Tyrannulet; a typical element of the soundscape in every habitat in Costa Rica.

Here are a few photos of the not so Paltry Tyrannulet:

Although lighting can affect how color is perceived, the shape stays the same.

A P. Tyrannulet nest.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds feeders lowlands

Common Costa Rican Birds; Palm Tanager

Tanagers for most birders are synonymous with brilliantly colors, burry songs and summertime. In eastern North America, it’s the stunning Scarlet Tanager in shining red and black and beautiful cozy-red Summer Tanagers. In the west, the Western Tanager adorns the conifers, looking like an orange-faced king of the goldfinches while the brick-red Hepatic Tanager lives in the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. None of these 4 is dull, and all have pleasant, lazy summer songs; quality perching birds.

As one heads south of the border, towards the epicenter of “tanagerism”, things get a bit more complicated. Somewhat like North American warblers, there is a tanager species for most every habitat and situation. The further south one goes, the more species there are with an especially dizzying array of tanagers in the Andes. The Tangara genus in particular is filled with birds that resemble living jewels. Costa Rica has a few Tangara species, Golden-hooded being a common bird of the humid lowlands.

Golden-hooded Tanager

Not all Tanagers are brightly colored. One of the most common, the Palm Tanager, is a fairly dull bird at least in terms of plumage. Aptly named, these guys are seriously in love with palms. A non-forest species, There isn’t a morning that goes by when I don’t hear the squeaky song of a pair of Palm Tanagers issuing from the monstrous palms that tower in front of our apartment. No doubt they are expressing their joy because they believe they moved on up (like George and Wheezie) into one of the best high-rises in San Jose.

Palm Tanagers and one Great Kiskadee

Although not the fanciest of species to look at, like other common birds, it pays to learn this one well to pick out two other, uncommon, similar birds; Plain-colored Tanager and Sulphur-rumped Tanager.

Plain-colored Tanager; note the smaller bill and bit of black on the face. In good light it also shows a buffy wash to the belly and vent. Forget about that blue in the wing- you almost never see it!

I wish I had a picture of the other one! While Plain-colored is regularly seen, the Sulphur-rumped is a downright rarity with very little known about it. It is hardly ever seen and is one of the birds that yours truly still needs for a lifer! With luck, I will finally catch up with Sulphur-rumped Tanager in May when I head to Manzanillo in the southeast.

Look for Palm Tanagers anywhere you see palms; this is one you are not going to miss.

Look for Plain-colored in forested areas and edge of the Caribbean lowlands. The La Selva entrance road is good.

Aside from in your dreams, look for Sulphur-rumped around Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo or in Buryabar, Panama.