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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations middle elevations

Fine Birding on the Slopes of Poas

In Costa Rica, Poas looms to the north of the airport. A big mound of a mountain, the roomy crater hidden in the clouds. It can be seen from the window of a plane, the turquoise, unwelcome water in the big hole briefly glistening in the sun. The rocky crater is framed in textured green, for folks on the plane, a distant, unreal broccoli carpet. There’s no indication of the true nature of that forest way down below, nor the other rivulets and waves of tropical forest that reach down the northern slopes of the volcano. The riot of life going on down there, Pumas and Ocelots doing their stealth dance beneath the wet canopy. Bright and sunny Collared Redstarts singing from the bamboo understory, bush-tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches rummaging through the bushes and trees.

Bright and beautiful, one of many highland species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Quetzals are there too, whistling and cackling from the misty forests. But, as with any scene from a plane, it’s just a distant natural portrait, the only soundscape one of humming motors and occasional requests for coffee, the hiss of sugary carbonated drinks poured over ice in a plastic cup. We only truly experience the forest on Poas and anywhere else with boots on the ground, can only get lost in the quick variety of mixed flocks, fluttering of quetzals, and the air scything ability of swifts by walking with those trees.

On Poas, it’s easy to walk near the oaks and wild avocados. The road up there is a good, quick hour or 45 minute ride from the San Jose area and after the village of Poasito, the birding improves. The national park itself has also been good for birding but ever since eruptions put access on hiatus, I’m not sure if the same trails are accessible. It has just re-opened though, I hope to assess the birding situation at some point. In the meantime, I can attest to the quality of roadside birding on the road up to the national park as well as along Route 126 (the Via Endemica), a recent day of guiding was no exception. Some of the good stuff:

Resplendent Quetzal

The sacred bird is up there on Poas, according to locals, not as common as it used to be but it’s still there. I was surprised to see one after another flutter between trees until I had counted six including the male pictured above!

Fasciated Tiger-Heron

Not in the high parts of the mountain but present along a roadside stream much lower down. The heron of rocky Neotropical streams posed nicely for us as it blended into the dark gray river stones.

Hummingbirds

 

Brown Violetear

Talamanca Hummingbird

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Coppery-headed Emerald

From Fiery-throated in the high parts to glittering Crowned Woodnymphs past Cinchona, hummingbirds are a welcome mainstay on Poas. Including a Steel-vented near Alajuela, we had fifteen species.

Northern Emerald Toucanet

Visit the Soda Mirador de Catarata (aka Cafe Colibri, aka the Hummingbird Cafe) to spend quality time with this exotic beauty.

Buffy Tuftedcheek

Not so common but this bromeliad bird us indeed present along the higher parts of the road. If you see a silhouette of one, this image shows what to expect.

Nightingale-thrushes

Not rare but skulky and always cool to see four or even five species in a day, most at different elevations. We had good looks at four and without too much trouble. This is a juvenile Slaty-backed N.-Thrush that was visiting the Cafe Colibri.

Black-thighed Grosbeak

A few were singing and showed nicely.

These were some of the one hundred plus species we saw on the slopes of Poas the other day, each stop adding more birds to the list. Many more were still possible and some calling birds remained unseen but any day spent birding is a good one. A day with more than a hundred species is even better especially when the birder can walk within reach of old, mossy trees frequented by quetzals, treerunners, and other cool birds with fantastic names.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Five Tips for Better Birding in Costa Rica, December, 2017

Another end of the year is nigh. Although the keeping of time is a subjective endeavor, putting a name to the end of another solar cycle is still a good excuse to get in more birding. I know, like any of us birders require a reason to put the focus on birds. We do it anyways, most of the time, so why try and get more busy with digging nature now? Although we don’t really need to watch more birds now than say June, with Christmas counts on the near horizon and year lists coming to an end, I guess we just better get out there and put the binos to an end of year, smash bang kung-fu birding test!

Test them on a Double-toothed Kite.

If you happen to be in Costa Rica these days, there are few better excuses to carry on with some non-stop birding. Literally hundreds of species await including more than a few with some seriously fancy looks. Here are five tips to see more of those cool birds in Costa Rica right now:

The Arenal Christmas Count– Ok, so you need to see this blog tonight or tomorrow to make it happen but if you are in Costa Rica on November 30th and want to participate in an awesome count in a super birdy area this weekend, contact the count organizers now at conteoavesarenal@gmail.com I’m going and I can’t wait to see what we find. Hopefully a rare migrant warbler or two (although I guess I would trade them for a Crested Eagle).

Visit Cope– Some time with Cope is especially well spent if you are into photography. If not, roosting owls, fine feeder displays, and a chance to purchase excellent bird art might also float your boat. Since he is in the lowlands, and the lowlands have lots of trees in fruit right now, there’s always the chance that Cope also has some good frugivores staked out.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique at Cope’s.

Hire a guide for a day trip– If you don’t have a guide for the entire time, consider hiring one for a day or two. If he or she is experienced, you will see more birds than on your own and a better chance at more of your target species.

Don’t shy away from “new” sites– There are a lot of good birding sites in Costa Rica, “hotspots” if you will, and some are on par with or even better than more established birding locales. Keep in mind that although eBird gives an indication of what can be found at a site, places that have been eBirded much more also tend to have more species on their lists. This doesn’t mean that those sites shouldn’t be visited or anything like that, but just to keep in mind that some of those species might have been more common in the past. The more birding that takes place in an area, the more species also eventually make it onto the list. I guess the only thing I’m really trying to say with this ramble is to not be afraid to check out spots off the regular birding circuit. If the habitat is there (lots of primary forest), that’s where the best birding is. Some sites that come to mind are Albergue del Socorro, the Finca Luna Nueva area, Volcan Tenorio, and Laguna del Lagarto.

Hit different elevations– When birding in Costa Rica, it’s well worth it to include sites or visits to the lowlands, foothills, middle elevations, and high elevations. Each elevational section has different habitats and forests with different birds. Leave one of those elevations out of the birding picture and you eliminate chances of seeing whole suites of bird species.

Purple-throated Mountain-gem awaits in middle elevations.

I hope those five tips help your birding trip to Costa Rica, especially if you can go to the count on Saturday! If I don’t see you there, I hope to see you somewhere else in the field. To learn more about birding sites throughout Costa Rica as well as how to see more birds, see my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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caribbean foothills

Some Birds to Expect at El Tapir

One of the most interesting things about birding in tropical habitats is the unpredictable nature of the endeavor. It seems like the more biodiverse a place is, the less predictable the bird species encountered. When venturing into rainforest with binoculars at the ready, the end result of this bio-trick is eventually ticking off species after species with careful, patient birding. After wondering where the other bird species were, you go back out that same afternoon and find some, and then a bunch more the following day. Keep visiting and you keep seeing more wondering where the heck those birds were the first time around.

As with most rainforest sites, this is the status quo at El Tapir. You never know what will show at the edge of the forest, and never know what will pop into view beneath the trees, but you do know that just about anything seems possible. “Just about anything” is code for a bunch of rare bonus species like umbrellabird, Sharpbill, the ground-cuckoo, maybe a Strong-billed Woodcreeper, maybe even Black-eared Wood-Quail. Since those birds are rare, no, they hardly ever show at the site but they always can, and on any visit.

During two recent visits, I had hoped that the cards would fall into place and give us an umbrellabird. After all, the big endangered cotinga has been seen near there recently, it occurs at that elevation at this time of year, and I still need it as a year bird. Although those cards didn’t play out, we were still dealt a deck with various other nice species. With the caveat that nothing there is guaranteed on a one day trip, these are a few things to sort of expect when birding this foothill site:

Lattice-tailed Trogon: El Tapir is a good site for this uncommon, localized foothill trogon. I do see it on most visits and that makes El Tapir one of the best places for it anywhere in its small range. Bird any of the trails the whole day and there’s a fair chance it will show. You still need to know what it sounds like though, because the big trogon hides exceptionally well in its extra-vegetated habitat.

lattice-tailed-trogon

Snowcap: Sounds like candy. Looks like candy. This is avian eye candy! The Porterweed bushes usually harbor several of these wonderful little hummingbirds. If you don’t see it here, or want to see it in more comfy settings where fantastic meals are served, give it a shot at Rancho Naturalista.

snowcap

Black-crested Coquette: These guys come and go but one often shows up. Last week, two eventually turned up, the male at one point sharing perching space on a  bare sapling with a Green Thorntail and a Snowcap.

black-crested-coquette

Mealy Parrots and toucans: They can also be seen in many other places but these usually show quite well at El Tapir.

toucans

King Vulture and other raptors: The site is still pretty good for this condor of the jungle. If it’s sunny, watch the skies from the parking area between 9 and 12. Other raptors often show too, including Ornate Hawk Eagle this past Sunday.

Antwrens and antvireos: The heavy forests at El Tapir are usually reliable for Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens. These uncommon little birdies are tough to see at many sites because they need lots of mature forest but are regular at El Tapir to the point of seeing them on most visits. You have to bird on the forest trails but they usually, eventually show up, and often have other small birds with them.

Tanagers: As with other quality foothill sites, this is a good one for tanagers. Numbers vary and a lot can be around if there are fruiting trees. Most possible tanagers can also be seen if you connect with a big mixed flock “led” by White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

emerald-tanager

Keep looking and don’t be shy about birding El Tapir for more than one day!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Hummingbirds Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Finding Green-fronted Lancebill in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a fantastic place for close looks at hummingbirds. Feeders and gardens planted with the hummingbird delicacy known as Porterweed bring in most species for soul satisfying views, and hundreds of digital captures.

Coppery-headed Emerald is one of several species commonly seen at feeders.

However, although most birders end up with 30 plus species during a two or three week trip to Costa Rica, most also end up with the same set of missing species. Those blanks usually include White-crested Coquette, White-tipped Sicklebill, Garden Emerald, and a few other species. One of those usually missing birds is the Green-fronted Lancebill, a rather dull hummingbird with a long, needle-like, oh so slightly upturned bill.

A typical look at a Green-fronted Lancebill.

This one can be a pain because it happens to be genuinely uncommon, ignores feeders, and doesn’t even visit Porterweed. Look in those places and you will see lots of hummingbird action but won’t see any lancebills. The lancebill prefers more refined food and places, look there and you might find them. Here are a few tips on finding and seeing this choice Costa Rican hummingbird:

  • Cloud forest: Although it can show up in foothill forests, the lancebill is most at home in the cloud forest zone. These are the forests shrouded in mist and draped with moss and epiphytes, and the lancebill lives in them from the Monteverde area south to Panama, and on both slopes between 800 and 2,300 meters.

    Cloud forest.
  • Hanging flowers: This odd hummingbird doesn’t have that long bill for nothing. Its bill seems to be adapted to clumps of tubular, hanging red or pink flowers because this is where it often feeds. Like a miniature Sword-billed Hummingbird (a South American, surreal specialty), lancebills sneak underneath those hanging flowers and feed from each tube with delicate precision. If you see a bunch of these flowers in cloud forest, a lancebill will probably show up sooner or later.
  • Streams and waterfalls: This is the best tip for finding a lancebill because whether you run into those special flowers or not, these birds are almost always found along streams. Like a wannabe dipper or Black Phoebe, they will even perch on a rock in the middle of the rushing waterway. They seem to like small waterfalls even more and will perch near the base or plunge basin to fly and out and catch unseen bugs.

    Lancebill habitat.
  • A few good sites: Any forested stream with small rapids and waterfalls in cloud forest is a good place to watch and wait for Green-fronted Lancebill but some of the more reliable spots are streams in Tapanti National Park (especially the one at the entrance), Monteverde (try the waterfall trail), The San Luis Canopy and nearby, and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (take the forest trail and watch around the base of any small waterfall).

Since this hummingbird probably has linear territories along streams, you usually have to wait for it to show up. Like other birds, it’s easiest in the early morning when it calls, is more active, and sometimes gets in chasing fights with other lancebills. No matter what time of day you look, once you find a suitable spot, be patient and keep scanning the rocks, twigs, and flowers until one shows up. You will probably see a few other good birds in the meantime.

If you see one, don't expect bright colors!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills Hummingbirds Introduction

Yesterday’s Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica at El Tapir

It’s the day after guiding at El Tapir and it’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago, I was looking at White-ruffed Manakins and listening to the whistles of hidden wood-wrens. Such is the big old contrast between a computer desk and the humid, dim interior of rainforest. There weren’t any crazy highlights but we had some nice birds nonetheless. The antithesis of a highlight was the odd absence of the Snowcap. Odd, because I have never not seen that fantastic hummingbird at El Tapir. I hope they come back soon and have not returned to the dream dimension to which they obviously belong.

Yes, this bird is from a dream dimension.

No Snowcaps, but we did see some other nice birds, one of which is easy to hear but is a menace to try and see. That toughy was a Nightingale Wren and oh how nice it was to come in and hang out a few short meters from our feet.

What a Nightingale Wren usualy looks like.
Now you know why the Nightingale Wren prefers to stay out of sight- it looks kind of like a piece of dirt.
Another look at this ridiculously reclusive rainforest soprano.

If you hear someone whistling out of tune in foothill rainforest, you are listening to a Nightingale Wren and not a short, bearded fellow with a pointed red hat (although some claim to have seen those beings in the forest as well).

No elves but we did have a nice view from an overlook. It was not so easy to get to this spot.

Other “good” birds we saw inside the rainforest were Spotted Antbird, Pale-vented Thrush, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Tawny-crested Tanager, and a bunch of White-ruffed Manakins.

Male White-ruffed Manakin.

The manakins were feeding on fruiting Melastomes. Several other birds paid visits to those important trees too but no hoped for cotingas or random Sharpbill.

Back out in the hummingbird garden, we were treated to one of the other top candidates for bird of the day, a male Black-crested Coquette. We got to watch that fine little bird as much as we wanted along with a couple of Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymph, and Violet-headed Hummingbirds among the over-abundant Rufous-taileds.

We often saw it through the flower stems.
Then it would fly into view.
Or put its head into the flowers.
Scoped views on a perch were also nice!

I will be at El Tapir again within a week for another Snowcap vigil. I hope they come back from their vacation from parts unknown.

Categories
bird photography Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds middle elevations

Some Good Reasons for Visiting the Catarata del Toro

The Catarata del Toro is a massive, scenic waterfall at the edge of Juan Castro Blanco National Park. if you are wondering where that is, think central Costa Rica, the mountains between Poas and La Fortuna. If it helps, it’s also near Bosque de Paz. If you aren’t headed to Bosque de Paz, it’s a bit of a detour off the route between Arenal and Sarapiqui but here are some reasons why the detour is worth it:

  • A couple of loop trails through good cloud forest: Although I have only birded on them twice, I think there is a lot of birding potential. The elevation is around 1,200 meters, the forest has a lot of big trees (indicators of quality habitat), and the forest is connected to the national park. On my limited time on those trails, I have had Highland Tinamou, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Pale-vented Thrush, and various common middle elevation species. I bet a lot more could occur.
  • Hummingbird feeders:  This is the main reason for paying a visit. Sometimes, they can be slow but during rainy weather and, when hummingbirds are hungry, the Colibridae action is out of sight.
Some of that sweet hummingbird action.
The feeders are also scenic.
Lots of fantastic Violet Sabrewings to look at.

  • Crazy, close shots of hummingbirds:
Juvenile Green-crowned Brilliant.
Adult Green-crowned Brilliant.
Adult male Green-crowned Brilliant with photo-bombing White-bellied Mountain-Gem.
White-bellied Mounatin-Gem
Green Hermit
  • Black-bellied Hummingbird: Not a whole lot of accessible sites for this one.
Black-bellied Hummingbird
Black-bellied Hummingbird showing its flat crown.
  • Coppery-headed Emerald: Common, near endemic (one population was found in Nicaragua).
    Coppery-headed Emerald shaking off the rain.

    Coppery-headed Emerald showing its colors.
  • Black-breasted Wood-Quail: They used to come into the garden but one of the owners told me that she thought their recent absence might be related to Coatis showing up now and then. She is probably right but the wood-quail should still be in the forest. I wonder if Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas are also around.

Not to mention, the owners also provide good service, can provide meals, and also offer 3 simple rooms. Sounds like a good place for a lone birder or small group to stay and check out. If you do, please send me a report to publish on the blog.

There's also that waterfall to look at. Probably harbors some good swifts.
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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges Introduction

Fun, Birds, and Food at Rancho Naturalista

If Costa Rica has a pioneer birding lodge, it would have to be Rancho Naturalista. I am pretty sure that this gem of a destination was the first place in Costa Rica to put most of the focus on birders and continues to please birdwatchers to this day. Rancho’s legacy includes several in-house guides who have gone on to guide tours around the globe, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of happy photographers, and legendary food. In trip reports, that culinary aspect of Rancho is at times overshadowed by the birds but oh how it does deserve a mention!

For example, after a recent trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we finished off the first day with a dinner of Morrocan Chicken. Meat falling off the bone, scrumptious, honest to goodness Morrocan recipe chicken. Every meal was just as fantastic and it prepares you for the fun birding on and off the grounds of the hotel.

As far as birding goes, feeders and birdy habitats always ensure plenty to look at. Upon arrival, we were treated to the ongoing hummingbird party. This glittering festival never ends and includes such guests as

White-necked Jacobin,

Green-breasted Mango,

Crowned Woodnymph,

Brown Violetear,

and Black-crested Coquette visible in the Porterweed for most of our stay. We also had other hummingbird species along with more than a few close looks at birds coming to fruit and rice feeders. Among those were

Brown Jay and

Gray-headed Chachalaca along with other species.

On more than one occasion, we also saw one of the least common, widespread raptors in the neotropics-

Bicolored Hawk! Rancho just might be the most reliable place for this species anywhere in its range.

But these birds were just some of the ones around the buildings. Up on the trails, the birding wasn’t as easy but we still saw White-crowned Manakin, heard Zeledon’s Antbird and Carmiol’s Tanager, and saw a fair selection of other middle elevation species. If you spent the whole day on the upper trails, you would have a fair chance at Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Brown-billed Sythebill, tanagers, and lots of other species.

Female White-crowned Manakin.

Although we didn’t do much on the upper trails, we had fun with one of the coolest attractions at Rancho. This gem was the moth sheet. The insects that come to the sheet at night are in turn eaten by birds that show up early in the morning and most are shy, forest interior species. The most common bird was Red-throated Ant-Tanager although we also had close looks at Plain-brown and Spotted Woodcreepers, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Plain Antvireo, and great looks at another reliable rarity at Rancho, the Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

Staying at Rancho isn’t cheap but you get more than what you pay for with excellent birding, fantastic food, excellent service, and the oportunity to hire very good guides. Take the La Mina excursion and you have a 95% chance of seeing Sunbittern.

We saw this pair!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Hanging Out with Hummingbirds from Poas to Sarapiqui

Yesterday, I guided a couple on the Poas-Cinchona-Nature Pavilion route. This always makes for a fun, easy-going tour because it puts the focus on feeders and photography with such extra possibilities as mixed flocks, and target birds like Black Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet, toucans, and high elevation endemics. Although the unusual hot, dry weather on the Caribbean slope has put a damper on bird activity (and can’t be doing anything good for birds, plants, insects, or anything other life forms adapted to rain on a daily basis), we still connected with the guan, quetzal, barbet, and an overall nice variety of birds.

A Prong-billed Barbet from another day at Cinchona. We saw one at the Volcan Restaurant.

Hummingbird feeder activity was especially good and was the main focus on our attention. At our first main stop, the Cinchona Cafe, we were treated to near constant hummingbird activity. One of the most common species was the big, bold, and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.

Male Violet Sabrewing.

At least 6 males were present and one female eventually showed as well.

The sabrewing was outnumbered, however, by Green-crowned Brilliants. At times, one feeder would play host to 6 or 7 brilliants, including juvenile males.

A male Green-crowned Brilliant .
A frontal view of a male brilliant.

The next most common hummingbird species was the tiny Coppery-headed Emerald, a white-tailed, middle elevation sprite with a slightly decurved bill.

A close, front view of a female Coppery-headed Emerald.

Green Hermits were also visiting the feeders more than they usually do (I wonder if the Heliconias they feed on are suffering from lack of rain), a few White-bellied Mountain Gems also made an appearance, and a couple of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were around.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

One Green Violetear was present but fed on flowering bushes instead of sugar water at the feeders. Rounding out the Cinchona hummingbird show were a few male and female Green Thorntails. Sometimes, the thorntails and other hummingbirds would perch within arm’s length.

A male Green Thorntail at Cinchona.

After enjoying a delicious country breakfast accompanied by hummingbirds, we moved on down slope to the Nature Pavilion. Being situated in the Caribbean lowlands, this site has a totally different set of hummingbirds (except for the near ubiquitous Rufous-tailed). White-necked Jacobin is the regular species at this site although hermits can also zip by, woodnymphs usually show up (although not yesterday), and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer makes an appearance or two (we did have this one).

A male White-necked Jacobin.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- note the red feet!

In addition to hummingbirds, we also did alright with other bird species even during the heat of the mid-morning. Two pairs of Rufous Motmots showed well down by the river along with Bay Wren, Collared Aracari, and a brief Keel-billed Toucan. A Black-mandibled also called but wouldn’t reveal itself.

A female Gartered Trogon from the Nature Pavilion.
Vivid Red-legged Honeycreepers were feeding in a flowering tree when not feeding on fruit.
A Striped Basilisk also showed well at the Nature Pavilion.

When the clock got close to noon, we headed back upslope, and drove on up to the Volcan Restaurant. This hotspot is situated at a much cooler 2,000 meters and shows it with birds like Magnificent Hummingbird, and Purple-throated Mountain Gem.

Magnificent Hummingbird.

We also enjoyed the antics of several Volcano Hummingbirds (all females but didn’t pick out any Scintillants), Green Violetear, a couple more Violet Sabrewings, Green-crowned Brilliants, one female Magenta-throated Woodstar, and a female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

A Volcano Hummingbird at the feeder.
A female Magenta-throated Woodstar.
A female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

The forested riparian zone at the restaurant also dished out some non hummingbird birdies, including Prong-billed Barbet, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Slate-throated Redstart, and a few other species, one of which was a female quetzal! A small Lauraceous tree next to the stream had some fruits and the female was actively feeding on them.

After getting our fill of a good lunch, lots of hummingbirds, and the birds in the riparian zone, we checked out the higher elevation forests near the entrance to the national park. They had already seen lots of Fiery-throated Hummingbirds at Paraiso de Quetzales but that didn’t stop us from looking at a few that were feeding on flowering bromeliads. Other birds included a quick Black Guan, Sooty, Mountain, and Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, some very nice looks at several Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Black and yellow Silky Fkycatcher, and both Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers.

A fun day overall, it makes me want to go back up there and just hike off into the highland forests on Poas.

Categories
biodiversity Introduction Pacific slope preparing for your trip south pacific slope

La Gamba- My New Favorite Birding Site in Costa Rica

It’s no secret that Costa Rica has a healthy abundance of great birding just about everywhere one goes but but some places stand out for the avian attractions they offer. One such place is the general vicinity of La Gamba, a small village in southwestern Costa Rica. I have had some nice birding there on previous trips but after the most recent journey to La Gamba, I left the area convinced that it’s one of the best birding sites in the country. I don’t really think that there’s one best of the best when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but I would say with conviction that La Gamba ranks up there in the top five sites for Costa Rica. Here are the reasons why:

  • Serious biodiversity: Yeah, lots of places in Costa Rica are packed with a fine array of creatures but La Gamba still stands out. The rainforests in the area support a huge number of tree species and that high biodiversity is also shown by the birds. For example, after doing an eBird tally of species from one long day in the area that didn’t even include any degree of forest interior birding, my eyes briefly bugged out when I noticed a species total of 152! Yes, the biodiversity is serious and that means that you keep seeing new birds the longer you stay.

    I had this bathing Giant Cowbird just after leaving the Tropenstation.
  • Good array of habitats: More habitats means more birds and in the La Gamba area we have some fine old rainforest in Piedras Blancas National Park, birdy gardens at Esquinas and the Tropenstation, open fields and seasonal wetlands with their respective bunch of birds, flowering trees and bushes that bring in the hummingbirds, and one heck of a birdy riparian zone.
    The birdy habitat entrance at the Tropenstation.
    Birdy roadside habitat.
    The bridge at the junction to Esquinas and the Tropenstation is especially good. This is where we had the coquette, Red-rumped Woodpecker, and many other nice birds.

    We also had Streaked Saltator there.
  • Endemics: Since La Gamba is located in the southwestern Pacific endemic bird area, it provides a home for species like Charming Hummingbird, Spot-crowned Euphonia, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and the others. All seem to be more common there than at many other sites too. Not to mention, it’s also a good place for Black-cheeked Ant Tanager, one of Costa Rica’s only true endemics. I heard several singing their dawn song on this recent trip and am sure we would have seen them if we had done more forest birding.
    A Charming Hummingbird sings (they sing all day long).
    Male Spot-crowned Euphonia.

    Male Golden-naped Woodpecker.
  • Uncommon, local birds: The habitats at La Gamba are particularly good for a variety of uncommon species. So many “good” birds can be seen there that this could be the deciding factor for it being one of my major faves. For example, here’s a short list of uncommon species that are regular around La Gamba-

Great Curassow: They walk around the gardens of the two main lodges like happy turkeys. Wild, tame, and super easy to watch and that’s how we like them!

A typically close look at a female Great Curassow.

Uniform Crake: Seen regularly on the lagoon trail.

Blue-headed Parrot: We had several good looks at these.

Blue-headed Parrot.

Band-tailed Barbthroat: This uncommon hummingbird was fairly common in the gardens of the Tropenstation and along the road.

Veraguan Mango: Look for this fine target when the Erythrinas are in bloom. I had at least two of this lifer on the recent trip!

Red-rumped Woodpecker: Uncommon but regular and we had it right at the main bridge over the stream!

Olivaceous Piculet: Had nice looks at this one.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher: We had at least 4 of these sveldt birdies.

A classic Fork-tailed Flycatcher.
A short tailed Fork-tailed Fly.

Slate-colored Seedeater: Regular in lodge gardens and along streams.

Red-breasted Blackbird: Not uncommon in rice fields in several parts of Costa Rica but always a favorite.

There are lots of other good birds to see as well!

  • Hummingbirds: When the plants are in bloom, this area can be really good for hummingbirds. Heliconias in the gardens attract 4 species of hermits, Charmning Hummingbird is common, and a nice variety of species come to the flowering Erythinas. We had at least 13 species during our stay, including 2 to 3 White-crested Coquettes!

    White-crested Coquette!
  • Vagrants: This is a good areas for vagrant species from Panama. Although we didn’t see them, other trips in the past have turned up things like Wattled Jacana and other species could also show up (like maybe that first Yellowish Pipit for the country). On our trip, a couple of the participants had a Mangrove Cuckoo and are pretty sure they saw a vagrant Green Ibis!
  • Access: To be honest, the best birding is usually up there in forests that we can’t get to so it’s a major bonus when you can drive to a site with a small car. La Gamba is very easy to get to- just take the turn to Esquinas Lodge and Golfito from the highway and drive on in to the Troppenstation or Esquinas.

    The sign for the Tropenstation.
  • Lodging: Speaking of those two places, Esquinas Lodge is pricey but has great service, excellent food, and nice lodging. The Tropenstation research station is cheaper ($66 per person, includes 3 meals) and rooms have two bunk beds each but it’s clean, comfortable, and has good food. I would also go back for the feeder action! Esquinas is closer to better forest but trails into the rainforests of the national park can also be easily accessed from the Tropenstation.
    A typical feeder scene at the Tropenstation.
    The Troppenstation feeder is just outside the dining area.
    It also had Golden-hooded Tanagers,
    Golden-naped Woodpecker,
    Green Honeycreepers,
    including the technicolor male Green Honeycreeper,
    Red-crowned Woodpecker,
    Red-legged Honeycreeper,

    and Scarlet-rumped Cacique.
  • Proximity to other good birding sites: Didn’t see Yellow-billed or Turquoise Cotingas at La Gamba? No problem, there’s a good chance for both at Rincon de Osa or even along the road to Golfito. You could also drive an hour or so to the rice fields near Ciudad Neily to try for Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, crakes, and other good birds. Or, if you feel like going further afield, the middle elevation habitats around San Vito are also within striking distance.

So, to sum things up, La Gamba is easy to get to, it’s extremely birdy, easy to bird, and offers a chance at tons of good species! I can’t wait to get back to that area.

Categories
bird photography Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills Hummingbirds Introduction

Why I Like to Patronize the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe

I like birding in Costa Rica just about every place I visit but I prefer to patronize some places over others. I like it when a place of business protects habitat, makes attempts to work in a manner that is sustainable with their surroundings, and of course offers the opportunity to see a variety of birds. It’s even better when you can get close looks and photos of uncommon species without having to pay a high admission fee. To me, such places are birder friendly because they make it easy for everyone to experience birds and not just the people who pay to take a tour or an entrance fee. One such place is the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.

The Cafe Colibri is a fantastic, reliable place for getting good shots of Silver-throated Tanager.
A Green Hermit visiting one of the feeders.
This male Green Thorntail perched just off the balcony.

This gem of a site has been a classic hotspot for years and continues to act as a place where visiting birders can have a coffee and sample delicious country Tico fare while being entertained by the antics of Coppery-headed Emeralds, Violet Sabrewings, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, and other choice species.

Emerald Toucanet striking a photogenic pose.
Common Bush Tanager and Prong-billed Barbets are regular visitors.
A Buff-throated Saltator at the feeder.Another look at the saltator.

What makes this place even more special is that the original cafe was destroyed in the 2009 Cinchona earthquake.

They have photos posted from Cinchona before and after the quake.

The family rebuilt on the same spot as the two story structure that used to play host to Crimson-collared Tanagers and Red-headed Barbets. Although the habitat isn’t as good as it used to be, the forest that was knocked down by the quake is growing back, is bringing in more birds, and should continue to improve with time. One of the owners told me that he has been seeing Red-headed Barbet more often and on recent visits, the feeders were buzzing with activity.

One of the feeders as seen from the balcony at the cafe.
One of the owners stocking the feeders. This guy loves to watch the birds that come in.
The main hummingbird feeders.

The cafe doesn’t charge for watching birds but do accept contributions. If you visit, please leave a hefty donation for the feeders and this bird loving family. It makes for a perfect lunch stop when driving the newly paved Varablanca- San Miguel road and plenty of other non-feeder birds can also show up. On recent visits, in addition to fine looking feeder birds, I also had Sooty-faced Finch, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Black-faced Solitaire, Keel-billed Toucan, White-crowned Parrot and other species.

A White-crowned Parrot eating a guava in the rain.

Other spots just down the road can turn up some nice mixed flocks, raptors, and who knows what else. The next time I visit, I hope I can bring them some material to help promote birding at the cafe. If anyone in the family has a mobile device, I will also give them a copy of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

I saw this Bicolored Hawk down the road from Cinchona.
Poro trees have been in bloom near Cinchona and have been attracting lots of birds!

To visit the Cafe Colibri, watch for it on the east side of the main road between Varablanca and San Miguel (the road that goes by the La Paz Waterfall gardens). It is situated between the waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.