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Costa Rica living earthquakes Introduction

Earthquake January 8, 2009

The upsides of living in a seismically active country are the hot springs and I suppose visiting active volcanoes. The downside is of course the possibility of having your house collapse onto your head or other nasty effects caused by an EARTHQUAKE.

Costa Rica has more fault lines criss-crossing its territory than cracks in a broken sidewalk. At least a few of these fault lines are always up to something; their subterranean movements shaking the ground when you least expect it. Yesterday, some chunk of a tectonic plate moved enough to cause a small earthquake (here called a temblor). It was a gentle shaking back and forth and hardly anyone took notice. Apparently though, that fault line was just getting warmed up for today, stretching a bit before jumping awake with the 6.2 earthquake that occurred around 2 P.M.

My wife and I had just got back from bringing my parents to the airport. I haven’t had a chance to speak with them yet because the phones didn’t work for an hour after the quake. At least their flight was able to leave after a bit of a delay. I was in the very middle of making lunch; chicken patties and plantains in the electric skillet, refried beans in the microwave when the ground began to shake strongly. This was no gentle swaying, no friendly temblor. No, this tinkled the cheap chandeliers that came with the apartment, opened the doors, toppled the neighbors pots and pans, and shook the foundations.

After the surprise segwayed into realization, I ran into the bedroom to find my wife on the bed praying over Miranda. Despite living here her whole life, she was so scared that she didn’t know what to do. I got her to her feet, grabbed Miranda and got us to the front door frame. On the way, I distinctly recall seeing the lights going on and off and everything swaying. Once we got to the door, the quake was almost over. We stayed there for a while in case of strong aftershocks but didn’t feel any at that time (I have while writing this though; several temblores of short duration). At the end of the shaking we lost all electricity and cell phone connections. The streets rang with car alarms, a few people standing around outside of their homes. A woman with 4 children was waiting to use a corner phone; her face was smeared with make-up from sobbing. Ari’s mom arrived shortly thereafter and told us she had electricity so we went to her house to have lunch, our half-cooked lunch food on hold in the electric skillet.

We have been watching and listening to the news ever since. Sadly at least two children died, trapped beneath a landslide. For the most part, though, people were just very frightened. My mother-in-law said it was one of the strongest she has ever felt during her whole life here. Windows broke in some of the taller buildings and there was structural damage near the epicenter; San Pedro de Poas. The road near the La Paz waterfall gardens and Cinchona is severely damaged; one guy said it has disappeared in parts. I’m not sure if the birding cafes at Cinchona were affected- hopefully they are still there. In any case, if you hoped to drive down the road from Varablanca to Cinchona, change your plans because that road will not be opened for a while.

editor’s note: The death toll from the Cinchona earthquake ended up being around 50, including some people I knew from the birding cafes. After more than a year later, the road through Cinchona is still officially closed and the town still abandoned.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

The Carara Christmas Count, Costa Rica

Like most bird counts, Christmas counts included, Dieter Holdt and I started the day so darn early that it was the middle of the night. This strange behavior is fairly typical of birders on count days. Be it a Big Day, Bird Race or Christmas Count, the more gung-ho (read psycho) birders take advantage of the midnight start time to listen for Nightjars, Owls, Rails and maybe disturb some poor sleeping bird with a bright light and excited whispers. In our case, we weren’t even looking for birds; we had to meet other Carara Christmas Counters at 4:30 A.M. Since we both live in the Central Valley, this meant a 2 hour drive down to the Pacific coast. At least night driving in Costa Rica is maybe 1,000 times better than during the day. Although drunk drivers might be a significant factor (and we saw one), traffic is more or less non-existent. This is in extreme contrast to day driving when the roads are clogged with honking cars, motorcycles zipping by and slow, behemoth trucks that reduce your average speed to about 20 miles per hour.

On the night of the count, driving was particularly nice with a full moon lighting up the roadways and painting the jade vegetation silver as we twisted and turned past the towns of Atenas and San Mateo. At one point we actually did look for a bird. This was in Orotina where a resident pair of Black and White Owls amazingly resides in the central plaza. During our plaza drive-by, though, Owls were replaced by a few drunken night people. Continuing on, before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination an hour before the meeting time- on a side note, if you drive at night in Costa Rica, you can probably cut off at least a third of your driving time.

We rested in the car for close to an hour until fellow counters arrived. After meeting up with the two other members of our group and getting our boxed (plastic bagged) lunches, we drove to our morning territory; the river or Vigilancia Trail. This trail/road/rainy-season mud-bath, accesses gallery forest, second growth, an oxbow lake before eventually reaching upland, primary rain forest. The variety of habitats combined with accessibility and ease of walking make it one of the best birding spots in Central America. It is one of those places where the birding seems to always be good and our day was no exception.

Our first species were typical of the pre-dawn lowland rain forest chorus; Pauraque from a nearby clearing, a mournful Collared Forest Forest-Falcon and Woodcreepers trilling and whistling into the dusky air. As we slowly made our way to our first and principal stop on the trail, other species were added to the list one after another, all by their vocalizations; Great and Little Tinamous, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Pale-billed Woodpeckers double-knocking, Mealy Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets overhead, Spectacled Antpitta, Black-faced Anthrush, Chestnut-backed and Dusky Antbirds, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes, several Flycatchers, Grey-headed Tanagers and so on.

Dieter, Maria and Nestor looking for birds.

Our main stop was the best Christmas tree a birder could ask for;  an immense fig tree in fruit.  Adorned with palatable ornaments of its own device, it was busy with over 20 species of birds.  The umbrella-like crown of the tree was so high up that we found birds by scanning with our binoculars. You could look with bins at almost any part of the tree and pick out at least one bird perched or feeding. Watching this incredible tree was surreal; three Trogon species looked as if they were in a feeding frenzy as they flew back and forth beneath the umbrella-like canopy, Kiskadees called and sallied for figs, even a few Long-tailed Manakins appeared now and then to snatch a fig. The strangest bird of all was a Band-tailed Pigeon, a species typically found at much higher elevations. Although we did not see the Turquoise and Yellow-billed Cotingas we had hoped for, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two had shown up and we just missed them because the tree was so big.

Looking up into the amazing fig; I am the one styling with boots with shorts.

After a couple of hours at the fig we noticed fewer fruits and fewer birds and so continued on down the trail trying to keep track of the birds we were constantly hearing and seeing. We picked up Ruddy Quail Dove (always a good spot for this terrestrial species), Gray-fronted Dove, flyby Wood Storks and a Great Blue Heron, Blue-throated Goldentail, Purple-crowned Fairy, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and so on. Some of the more common species were Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Orange-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, and several Wren species. Carara is a great example of Wren diversity by the way. We saw 7 species along that trail, most common being Black-bellied, Rufous and White and Riverside.

Eventually we reached the oxbow lake. This was the perfect spot for a mid-morning rest.

We watched  a few crocodiles

and counted various widespread waterbirds including 4 Black-necked Stilts and several Boat-billed Herons that roosted in nearby trees. We also picked up Prothonotary Warbler and Ringed and Green Kingfishers. A bit further on was beautiful upland primary forest. We heard a few Rufous Pihas there and saw more of the same. Being midday, it was pretty quiet in the upland forest. If you are there at dawn, I am sure it is a whole other matter.

At that time, we made our way back up the trail, hanging out at the fig tree to get better looks at Long-tailed Manakin and hope for Cotingas. Although no Cotingas showed, we picked up one of our target birds along the way; Royal Flycatcher. This trail is a very reliable spot for this species.

We munched our bagged lunches of bread, cheese, fruit and crackers and wished we had slept longer the night before even though that would have broken the big day and Christmas count traditions of feeling exhausted most of the time. Since one of our count group forgot his bagged lunch, we drove to the nearby Guacimo soda so he could refuel. This was about 5 minutes from the Tarcol bridge, on the right side of the highway heading towards San Jose. The change in habitats is amazing; as soon as you cross the bridge, you enter into drier habitat which holds many species not found in the humid forests of Carara. The Guacimo had a nice overlook and we picked up a few new birds here.

Guacimo overlook.

From the soda, we continued up the highway towards San Jose taking a right at the next intersection for our afternoon territory. This area is called Sandillal and accesses much drier, grassy fields, and good moist forest before reaching the Tarcol river. We continued to get new species along this road. Best were Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendolas (both uncommon birds around Carara) and Gray-headed Kite. We also had excellent Hummingbird activity at flowering Ingas. Dozens of Hummingbirds of 8 species were buzzing around these trees. The most common Hummingbird species on the dry side of the bridge were Steely-vented, Green-breasted Mango, Ruby-throated and Rufous-tailed. Our best Hummingbird species were White-necked Jacobin and Plain-capped Starthroat.

Down at the river we picked up a Snowy Egret and Gray Hawk but not much else so we sped over to the Tarcol river bridge hoping for flyovers of something new.

The Tarcol bridge.

We saw a few Macaws in the distance but very little flying over the bridge itself. Nevertheless, we managed to scope a distant Common Black Hawk, get our Spotted Sandpiper, and our only Cherries Tanagers and Grayish Saltators. By this time, it was 5 PM and we were more than exhausted enough to call it a day. We headed back to our lodging (dormitories in the park) and rested up before driving over to dinner provided by the Crocodile tour. This is another nice thing about some of these Costa Rican Christmas counts; the organizers do an excellent job of not only planning out routes but also getting local businesses involved to the point of providing food and a tee-shirt.

At dinner we caught up with other counters and found out that our team probably got the highest species total with 151 species. This is also the most I have recorded in one day in Costa Rica; a total I hope to soundly top with a Big Day possibly in 2009. Although our Yellow-billed Cotinga never showed at the amazing fruiting fig, another team got one female in the mangroves. The mangrove team also got the best bird; Nashville Warbler! A common species further north, this is a very rare vagrant in Costa Rica. Although the photos weren’t the best, they looked pretty convincing as were their descriptions. I think its no wonder this bird showed up in mangroves since a migrant at the periphery of its range is likely to be a juvenile that ends up using substandard habitat; mangroves being substandard for many Warbler species. I am still waiting for the final total for all teams but expect it to get close to or top 300 species as several shorebirds were recorded and a variety of cloud forest species from higher elevations that fell into the count circle.

After a night of much needed rest, Dieter and I birded the primary forest of Carara. This forest is just fantastic; giant trees that soar above a thin understory making it easy to see understory birds, clear streams, and of course lots of good birding. Over the course of an hour on the trails, some of the better species we saw (and typical of Carara)  were: a few Crested Guans, Scarlet Macaws, White-necked Puffbird, Spectacled Antpitta (possibly the easiest spot to see this species), Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a likely lump with Spot-throated Woodcreeper), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Rufous Piha.

After excellent forest birding, we drove to Tarcoles in search of wetlands and associated bird species. Along the road into Tarcoles, we had close looks at a pair of Yellow-naped Parrots and eventually found our waterbirds somewhere between Tarcol village and the Crocodile tour. The birds were in the flooded portion of someone’s backyard and this temporary pond must have been filled with aquatic goodies because there were..

at least a dozen White Ibis,

Wood Storks,

Great Egrets,

and Bare-throated Tiger Herons.

Further on, we took a left near the crocodile tour to head towards the beach. This section of road passes through more wetlands and mangroves before reaching the beach. We saw little in the wetlands and mangroves but had several new species on the beach such as hunting Ospreys, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, and many Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There were also a good number of birds perched on sandbars at the mouth of the Tarcol river. Unfortunately, we couldn’t check them out because it was time for us to head back to San Jose and we still wanted to stop in Orotina.

The beach near Tarcoles.

At Orotina, we walked through the plaza checking the trees for the local Black and White Owls. As per usual, the plaza was busy with all sorts of people and as on other occasions, I could not find the Owls until the local ice cream vendor pointed them out. On this day, we only saw one of the Owls and it was roosting in a fairly open tree at the edge of the park. If the ice-cream guy isn’t there, check for white-wash as there was plenty under the owl’s perch on that day.

With Black and White Owl under our belts and 168 other species in just a bit more than  one day of birding, we felt more than satisfied as we drove back up to the White-winged Doves and Tropical Kingbirds of the central valley. As always, I can’t wait to get back to Carara.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Day trip to Virgen del Socorro

This classic Costa Rican birding site became inaccessible after the earthquake on January 8, 2009. It is very likely that much of the habitat near the river was destroyed. Don’t make any plans to bird at Virgen del Socorro until further notice.

Last Saturday, I guided the BCCR trip to the classic middle elevation birding site of Virgen del Socorro. Even if we hadn’t gone birding, it would have been worth the curvy drive up the cordillera to escape the fumes and pot-holed asphalt of the central valley.

Our meeting place and time being the La Paz waterfall at 7 AM, we left at quarter to five from San Pablo de Heredia escaping the busy morning traffic just after the town of Barva de Heredia.  The fresh, humid air of cloud forest remnants was a welcome change from the car exhaust of the valley. I hope to survey this underbirded road sometime as there are some nice forest remnants along streams with stands of Alder and bamboo. We had a date with middle elevation birds of the Caribbean slope though and so couldn’t stop.

After cresting the ridge of the cordillera at Varablanca near Poas volcano, we began our descent of the Caribbean slope. Although much of the roadside had been cleared, there were extensive areas of cloud forest nearby; some of which reached the road itself. After a steep, curvy section we made it to our meeting place; the bridge at the La Paz waterfall.

White-collared Swifts that roost behind the falls were zipping out of the spray in pairs while a Torrent Tyrannulet foraged on river boulders. Although we didn’t see any, this might be a good spot as well for White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts. About 5-10 minutes after the waterfall, we passed by Cinchona then drove at least a few more kilometers to the  turn-off for Virgen del Socorro. Watch for the sign for this inconspicuous road that requires a 180 degree turn to the right to enter it.

The road descends to a river that cuts through a forested canyon. We slowly walked down the road while non-birding Fred graciously took both cars to the bridge at the bottom of the road and waited for us. Although it was fairly quiet (maybe time of year) we heard both species of large Toucan as well as the constant singing of one of the most common species here; Tropical Parula. Despite constantly whistling like Immaculate Antbird (another common species here) not a one answered. Collared Trogons were pretty common, feeding on roadside fig trees.

And Tufted Flycatchers were pretty common too- I at least got a good pic. of this friendly bird.

Some other birds we saw and heard on the way down to the bridge were: Smoky-Brown Woodpecker rattling away like a rusty machine gun, a Broad-winged Hawk (the most common hawk species in winter) hunting along the roadside, a few flybys of Brown-hooded Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, and a couple small mixed flocks with Slaty-capped Flycather (calling different from South-American Slaty-caps), Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, Wilsons Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler and Common Bush and Silver-throated Tans.

At the bridge, we enjoyed the peaceful rushing water and

watched Black Phoebes- a bird more tied to bridges than any troll.

We also had American Dipper here; an indicator of a healthy stream. Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron no doubt occur here as well although we didn’t see any this day. Venturing onto the trail into the forest just before the bridge on the right, I changed my tune from Immaculate Antbird to Lanceolated Monklet. This is a regular site for this rare species in Costa Rica that prefers stream banks in mossy foothill forest and is much easier to see in Ecuador and Peru. Like the hidden Immaculate Antbirds along the roadside, it also refused to repond. We did get lucky with a close view of Sooty-faced FInch, however; finally seeing one instead of hearing them call from dense undergrowth all morning. Shortly thereafter, we saw our bird of the day, a Nightjar!!

Roosting NIghtjars are tough. Books tend to show their best field marks in ideal conditions; just the type of situations in which one does not typically see them. We figured this was a female Chuck-wills-widow; probably a fairly common but little seen wintering species in Costa Rica. The head seems too big for Whip-poor-will, the tail too reddish, and most of all, the primaries too long. We couldn’t see the front or underside of the bird unfortunately and would like to hear from others about the ID of this bird. I hope it is a Chuck- I certainly put in my time for this species with all that whistling I did into the dark of southern summer nights in Illinois and Louisiana.

We didn’t see much of anything else on this trail but it looked promising for other rare species such as Scaled Antpitta, Green-fronted Lancebill and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them here in the past). When I bird this trail at dawn some lucky day, I will post about it.

After the trail, we walked up the road a bit on the other side of the bridge and ran into a few more birds. Although we didn’t hook up with a huge mixed flock that this road is noted for, we did alright with Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Fly, Golden-bellied Fly, nice looks at Bay Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and excellent looks at Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Although this area is usually good for raptor species including Solitary Eagle, we only saw Vultures up in the sky! The closest we got to a White Hawk (fairly common here) only turned out to be the distant glare of a palm frond!

After birding VIrgen del Socorro, we stopped at Cinchona for coffee and as per usual were rewarded with amazing, close looks at a variety of Hummingbirds and other species coming to the feeders. We even had a mixed flock pass near the balcony, best bird being Barred Becard.

This is one of the easiest places in CR to see Red-headed Barbet. Here is a female.

And this is the male.

Its also a good place to see Prong-billed Barbets at arms length.

Silver-throated Tanagers are always present.

and Baltimore Oioles are back.

See my posting on Cinchona for more photos, especially of Hummingbirds.

Luckily, the rain held off until we headed back up the mountain to Varablanca for lunch at Colberts- a French restaurant with excellent food (including home-baked goods!) that overlooks the Caribbean lowlands (where it is usually raining, so actually the view is mostly of clouds and mist). He has Hummingbird feeders as well with

Purple-throated Mountain Gem

and Volcano Hummingbird being the common species.

Overall, a good day, best done with one’s own vehicle although buses are available from both San Jose and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

My Favorite Rain Forest for birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica has made a name for itself with its National Parks and protected areas. Monteverde combines beautiful cloud forest with excellent tourist infrastructure. Carara offers exceptional birding at the junction of humid and dry ecosystems. The Pacific beaches of Manuel Antonio are set against a rain forest backdrop. Wild and rough Braulio Carrillo, though, is my favorite. I admit I could be biased because this was the first place I experienced rain forest. The first place a White-necked Jacobin appeared out of the jade green surroundings to hover in front of my face. The first time I saw a White Hawk and a King Vulture; breathtaking neotropical bird species.

In addition to exciting birding in fantastic primary rain forest on every visit, I might also be biased because I could get there so easily; less than an hour from San Jose on any morning bus to Guapiles. Like most rain forest birding, some days are slower than others, you can easily get rained out for the entire day, and seeing the birds can be a serious challenge. Although I sometimes feel that the birding was better in the past (I used to see more Tinamous and Quail Doves), its still my favorite spot as well as my birding patch here in Costa Rica.

The 500 meter elevation of this very wet, Caribbean slope forest ensures a good mix of lowland and foothill species. Some of the forest dependent species that have become rare at La Selva still regularly occur at Quebrada Gonzalez such as:

Ornate Hawk Eagle

King Vulture

White-whiskered Puffbird

Antwrens and Antvireos

Tawny-faced Gnatwren

Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers

The place is especially good for large mixed flocks led by White-throated Shrike Tanager.

While I took pics of this male, the surrounding vegetation resounded with the calls of various Tanager species, Woodcreepers, Russet Antshrike, Scarlet-rumped Caciques and others.

On my last visit, I got some lucky shots of this juvenile Ornate Hawk Eagle.

and here this formidable predator looks like it is about to attack! In the Amazon, these guys are one of the main predators of Squirrel Monkeys and Macaws. A friend of mine saw one catch a Curassow- same size as a Turkey.

Quebrada Gonzalez is probably one of the easiest places in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) to see this spectacular raptor. Ornates are often seen in flight from the parking lot on sunny days from 10 AM to 12 noon.

My patch is also one of the best sites to see Black-crowned Antpitta. Well, to be honest, they occur here but are very difficult to actually see. While this male sang, a Little (Stripe-throated) Hermit buzzed around in front of the Antpittas face. It acted as if the Antpitta was a threat!

Green Hermits are the most common hummingbirds here.

I often see White-faced Capuchins, Spider Monkeys and other animals such as this diabolical looking Collared Peccary.

One rainy day, this Northern Tamandua was hanging out next to the ranger station.

I always usually see some cool lizards.

There are two trails; a well maintained 1 k. loop trail behind the ranger station and two longer loop trails across the highway that lead down to the river. The one behind the station is easiest, the trails across the highway sometimes blocked by fallen trees. They are open from 8 AM until 4:30 PM and cost $8 for non-residents, $2 for residents.

Quebrada Gonzalez is found along the highway from San Jose to Guapiles about 4 ks after the bridge over the Rio Sucio. By bus, take any bus to Guapiles from the Caribeños bus station and tell the driver to let you off at Quebrada Gonzalez. To get back to San Jose, flag down any passing bus; some stop, most don’t.

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living

Yiguirro: The national bird of Costa Rica

Many places have a Thrush species that has become adapted to living around people. In much of North America, American Robins are as synonymous with front lawns as sprinklers.  Europeans have the Blackbird; immortalized in song by the Beatles and in prose by Shakespeare. In Costa Rica, Ticos chose the Clay-colored Robin (Turdus grayi) for their national bird. Opting for familiarity over splendor, it trumped spectacular species such as Resplendant Quetzal and Scarlet Macaw as well as undeniably cool birds like the Harpy Eagle. Clay Coloreds are THE garden bird of Costa Rica. Found from lowlands to cloud forest (where it gets replaced by the Mountain Robin), they sing a lot like their northern counterparts but are shyer; their presence usually revealed by their querelous, meow-like call. As their name suggests, Clay-colored Robins are also less colorful. My wife even goes as far as to call them downright ugly. These Yiguirros were at the Cinchona feeders. I think they look OK; judge for yourselves if you agree with my wife.

 

Monster Clay Colored Robin

 

Note the yellowish bill- field mark to separate it from Mountain and Pale-vented Robins.

 

More pics of the same bird; a juvenile molting in its head feathers.

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Introduction

Introduction

 

Do you want to learn about living in beautiful Costa Rica? Would you like the inside scoop on the amazing birding this biodiverse country has to offer? Read first hand accounts and see photos of its beaches, rain forests, mountains and other attractions from an insider who lives here? If yes to any of the above, then this blog is for YOU!