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bird finding in Costa Rica birding lodges

Great Urban Birding at Villa San Ignacio, Costa Rica

Good birding in Costa Rica doesn’t require hours of bumpy rides and long, hot, triathalon training hikes. While the adventurous birder is welcome to burn calories and sweat buckets, excellent birding in Costa Rica can still be had with much less investment of time and effort. I am reminded of this benefit just about every time I go birding because although I do enjoy exploration that requires long hikes through tropical forest, most of my guiding and birding take place while driving and along very manageable trails. Part of that is because this makes for more feasible, easy guiding but honestly, if you know where and how to look for birds in Costa Rica, you can see a heck of a lot, even quite close to urban areas.

I hear this species from time to time right from the house.

As with birding anywhere, habitat is crucial and that’s why I bring birders to Villa San Ignacio. Most of the grounds feature large old trees (including bird-magnet fruiting figs) and regenerating moist forest that attract a good number of species found in dry and moist tropical forest. It’s a key place to see what much of the Central Valley used to look like and how some areas could eventually look if we just let it grow back.

Situated only 20 minutes from the airport, this hotel also works very well as a place to start and end a birding trip. Since the hotel is also at the edge of urbanization in the Central Valley, good birding can also be had on nearby roads. I was reminded of this during the past couple days of guiding at and near Villa San Ignacio. Some of what I saw and learned:

Productive birding at Villa San Ignacio

As is usually the case when birding in good habitat, the avian activity kept us busy. Red-crowned Ant-tanagers moved through dense second growth accompanied by a pair of Barred Antshrikes, Rufous-capped Warblers, Rufous-breasted Wren and other species. Cocoa Woodcreeper was a surprise and a reminder that Villa is a bit lower than San Jose and thus more biodiverse. Brown Jays screeched from the trees and revealed the presence of a juvenile Gray Hawk which then also began to scream. Back in the dense second growth, we had nice looks at Lesser Greenlet, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Streaked Flycatcher but the best was a female Long-tailed Manakin perched on a vine at close range.

I have seen males there on other days.

Plain-capped Starthroat and ground-sparrows

At the edge of the forest, we had excellent views of Plain-capped Starthroat and Blue-vented Hummingbird. On other visits, I have also had Cinnamon Hummingbird and Green-breasted Mango. We also had both ground-sparrows albeit with the briefest of views. The White-eared showed slightly better but the key endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow only revealed its presence with a few call notes followed by a quick flutter to skulk in thick grass.

Good birding on nearby roads

On roads near Villa, good birding is also possible, the main challenge is finding a place to pull off the road. Although that was generally impossible, we were able to stop on a quiet road that passed through a coffee farm with a scattering of trees. The birding was pretty good and I bet it can result in a lot more than we saw during our 30 minute stop. The quaint calls of Blue-vented Hummingbirds greeted us as we stepped out of the car. Shortly after, a flock of White-crowned Parrots flew into a nearby tree and I was surprised to hear the croaking notes of a Keel-billed Toucan. After a bit of maneuvering, there it was, a beautiful bird with a fancy multi-colored beak and within site of the urbanized valley. Not long after I was even more surprised to hear Fiery-billed Aracaris.

Although this regional endemic is more typical of the rainforests on the southern Pacific slope, small numbers also occur in the southern and western parts of the Central Valley (including Villas San Ignacio). After a bit of waiting, two of this exotic beauty fly into the bare tree that already featured the parrots. Our brief stop was rounded out by hearing the ticking call of another Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow and watching three Ferruginous-Pygmy-Owls at close range.

Turf farms

Unexciting to all but grass enthusiasts and birders hell bent on seeing grasspipers, the latter bit is why I was excited to learn about the presence of these farms. I need to be checking them soon, hopefully with my partner because Upland and Buff-breasteds will be flying back this way, some likely already are. There weren’t any sandpipers visible the other day but it was still good to know where we can look for them.

Birding in Costa Rica is best in places with the most complex, developed habitats (large areas of intact primary forest) but some urban areas can still host much more than you think. Villa San Ignacio is one of those places, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to learn more about birding and staying at this gem of site.

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birding lodges Christmas Counts Osa Peninsula Pacific slope

The 2010 Osa Christmas Count at the Bosque del Rio Tigre

I took a second class bus from the bowels of San Jose up and over Cerro de la Muerte (” mountain of death”) to the frontier-like southwestern lowlands of Costa Rica to get to my destination. It was ten hours on the bus, two of which involved slamming our way over a section of remote road that was seriously afflicted with potholes, but I finally reached my rendezvous with birding friend Dorothy MacKinnon just before nightfall. It was slightly too late to watch birds except for the Common Pauraques that flew off the road at our approach but still early enough to comfortably ford the river that runs just in front of our final waypoint, the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge.

Inside the lodge.

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We were there to participate in the Bosque del Rio Tigre sector of the Osa CBC organized by Karen Leavelle of the Friends of the Osa. Our gracious hosts were Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo, owners of one of the best birding lodges in Costa Rica, the Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge. They were as welcoming as always and eager to discuss count logistics. With just 11 participants, it was going to be impossible to cover the count circle to the extent of other Costa Rican counts such as La Selva or Carara but we would do our best with two small teams covering major habitats as well as one person staying back at the house to maintain the yard and feeder count.

I had heard a lot about the excellent cuisine of Bosque del Rio Tigre and the tuna steaks and garlic potatoes for dinner on the evening before the count certainly surpassed my expectations. As I savored that perfect meal, I thought that if the birds didn’t cooperate, at least dinner was probably worth the long bus ride!

As with all nights before a CBC in the tropics, I went to bed before nine to essentially get up in the night. Sure, 4:30 a.m. is only thirty minutes or so before the light of dawn begins to faintly illuminate the surroundings but it’s still nighttime in my book. Because it is pitch black outside, I always have this strong notion that I should be sleeping as opposed to feeling disoriented as I fumble around with my flashlight. 

Fortunately, I am able to make it to the washroom without knocking anything over or walking into a wall and fully wake myself up with cold water splashed on the face. Since I wisely prepared my gear the night before, I am ready to rock and roll in five minutes and head downstairs for coffee and banana bread.  As others come to the table, Liz apologizes for the fact that we aren’t having a proper breakfast and points out a variety of healthy snacks to keep us going until an early lunch. As we finish coffee and get ready to head off to our respective territories, the first birds of the day start to call. Someone heard Black and white Owl the night before so that is technically bird numero uno but the first for me is a Collared Forest-Falcon vocalizing from somewhere on the other side of the river. Getting a forest falcon at that crepuscular hour is pretty typical as is hearing woodcreepers and shortly thereafter sure enough, our next birds are a couple of dawn yodeling Cocoa and Northern Barred Woodcreepers. Another of our first calling birds is regular at the lodge but a new year bird for me- the tiny Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet.

Starting the count. Check out our slick, green 2010 Osa CBC tee-shirts.

birding Costa Rica

Just as everything seems to be starting to wake up and the light of day steadily grows, Liz, Dorothy, and I head up into the primary forest on the hillside behind the lodge on our way to an open area that overlooks a mix of pasture and forest. We quickly tick off forest species such as Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Scaly-throated Leaftosser (regular at the lodge), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager. Dot-winged Antwren, Red-capped Manakin and Blue-black Grosbeak also get counted and just as we reach the horse trail that will take us to the open area, Gray-headed Kite calls from the canopy. In addition to its typical vocalization of steady, repeated notes, it also gives a strange rising call that momentarily tricks us because of its similarity to the calls of a young Spectacled Owl.

On up into the open area, we keep hearing new birds and actually see a few too now that it’s light out. The day is thankfully overcast but not so much to pour down rain and so we thankfully avoid getting roasted under the blazing, lowland sun. As we scan the treetops, Liz remarks how heavier rains than usual appear to have resulted in less fruit being available in the forest and so a number of frugivorous birds seem to have moved to lower lying areas in search of arboreal vittles. She says that because of this it’s kind of slow even though we have recorded 70 species by this time.

birding Costa Rica

While scanning the forest canopy, I find one of our best birds of the day perched in a tall, bare emergent. It’s not very close but the light colored underparts and dark head tells me this is something good and when it turns its head to reveal a raptor profile, yep(!) it’s a Tiny Hawk! My first for 2010 and always a good bird, the thrush-sized little forest raptor lets us watch it for a few minutes before flying across of field of view. In flight it looks a lot like a small Sharp-shinned Hawk.

We leave the open area after that and count more forest birds as we make our way down to the Crake Trail and eventually to edge habitats near the river. The Crake Trails gets its name from the Uniform Crakes that are regular there. We look for them but despite neither seeing nor hearing any, keep moving because we just can’t dedicate the whole day to seeing that elusive denizen of wet thickets. It’s around this time that we also hear a strange bird calling. I know it’s a parakeet species but nothing I am familiar with and so guess that it could be a Brown-throated Parakeet. I can barely believe my eyes when I then briefly spot a long-tailed parakeet hanging out with a much shorter-tailed and expected Orange-chinned Parakeet perched at the top of a riverside tree. The only other long-tailed parakeet species in the area is Crimson-fronted Parakeet but this bird was most definitely NOT one of those! They fly off before I can get more than a one second look and it’s not enough to clinch an ID but amazingly, we hear it calling again and are thrilled to see it fly right into perfect light and perch in full view for 5 or so seconds. The pale eye ring accompanied by brown cheeks and throat show that yes it is most certainly a Brown-throated Parakeet and we can hardly believe our luck at getting this new species for the lodge on the same day as the CBC.

As the sun comes out, we get several more raptors- King Vulture, White Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Black Hawk Eagle. With 14 raptor species recorded for the day, I am pretty sure it’s my best day for raptors in Costa Rica! After sightings of Great Antshrike, two becard species, and picking up more key birds of the low, thick stuff such as our only Black-bellied Wren of the day and Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, we swing by a lagoon to get Neotropical Cormorant, Green Kingfisher, and Boat-billed and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and get killer close looks at beautiful Marbled Wood-Quail before finally making it back to the lodge for lunch. After trudging around all morning in the uncomfortable yet requisite rubber boots, it’s a fantastic feeling to take that trying footwear off and sit down to yet another excellent meal. 

Me looking serious (probably dazed by the humidity) and Dorothy enjoying an apple.

birding Costa Rica

During lunch and some post lunch relaxation, the parakeet shows up again, this time with a brown-throated friend, and they amazingly perch in full view on a distant tree. As we watch those, it’s hard to decide where to look as a much prettier Turquoise Cotinga makes an appearance in the same tree and Little Tinamou and Blue Ground-Doves show up near the kitchen to eat rice thrown to the ground. Fruit feeders also attract quality bird species such as…

 the Costa Rican endemic, Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager,

birding Costa Rica

the mostly Costa Rican endemic Fiery-billed Aracari (they barely reach Panama),

birding Costa Rica

and two other mostly Costa Rican endemics, the Spot-crowned Euphonia, and

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Golden-naped Woodpecker!

Although I kind of feel like just birding from a hammock for the rest of the day, as it would be blasphemous to shirk responsibilities on a CBC, I join the group in fording the river to walk through the village and hike up the Pizote River to make sure we don’t miss White-tipped Sicklebill. Birding is good (surprise, surprise) along the way and we record a bunch of usual edge and second growth suspects as well as Green Heron, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, and White-throated Crake in roadside marshy spots.

The river walk is made challenging because we can’t see wear to put our feet in water made murky by the activities of gold miners (illegal) upriver. The sound of the rushing stream cancels out any and all bird calls which makes this segment of the CBC the least productive. There was gold at the end of the muddy rainbow however, as Abraham led us to roosting White-tipped Sicklebills! Another new one for the year, I hadn’t seen one of these crazy looking hummingbirds since I don’t know when so I guess the fear of slipping and drowning my camera in the brown stream was worth it!

birding Costa Rica

White-tipped Sicklebill thanks to Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge.

A fitting way to end a fantastic day of birding, we counted up results before yet another perfect dinner and came up with 205 bird species! Our team alone wracked up 144 for the day and still saw a dozen or more species the following morning. It will be interesting to see how many I get on the Carara count two weeks from now.

We couldn’t count wooden birds but we got the real ones anyways (Turquoise Cotinga, Barird’s Trogon, and Orange-collared Manakin).

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Our team list for the day:

Little Tinamou
Neotropical Cormorant
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Boat-billed Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
King Vulture
White Hawk
Roadside Hawk
Collared Forest-Falcon
Yellow-headed Caracara
Gray -headed Kite
Tiny Hawk
Black Hawk-Eagle
Gray Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Double-toothed Kite
American Swallow-tailed Kite
Marbled Wood-Quail
White-throated Crake
Purple Gallinule
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
Northern Jacana
Pale-vented Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Blue Ground Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Gray-chested Dove
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Brown-throated Parakeet
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Brown-hooded Parrot
White-crowned Parrot
Mealy Parrot
Red-lored Parrot
Scarlet Macaw
Squirrel Cuckoo
White-collared Swift
Costa-Rican Swift
Bronzy Hermit
Long-billed Hermit
Stripe-throated Hermit
White-tipped Sicklebill
White-necked Jacobin
Blue-throated Goldentail
Charming Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Baird’s Trogon
Violaceous Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
Blue-crowned Motmot
Green Kingfisher
White-necked Puffbird
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Fiery-billed Aracari
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Olivaceous Piculet
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Slaty Spinetail
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
Plain Xenops
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Northern Barred Woodcreeper
Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Black-hooded Antshrike
Great Antshrike
Chestnut-backed Antbird
Dot-winged Antwren
Black-faced Antthrush
Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet
Southern Beardless Tyrannulet
Yellow Tyrannulet
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Paltry Tyrannulet
Northern Bentbill
Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Spadebill
Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Wood pewee sp.
Tropical Pewee
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Bright-rumped Attila
Rufous Piha
Rose-throated Becard
White-winged Becard
Masked Tityra
Black-crowned Tityra
Orange-collared Manakin
Red-capped Mankin
Turquoise Cotinga
Yellow-throated Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Lesser Greenlet
Gray-breasted Martin
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Mangrove Swallow
Black-bellied Wren
Riverside Wren
House Wren
Scaly-breasted Wren
Long-billed Gnatwren
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Clay-colored Robin
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Bananaquit
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
Cherries´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Blue Dacnis
Blue-black Grasquit
Variable Seedeater
Thick-billed Seed-Finch
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
Scarlet-rumped Cacique
Yellow-billed Cacique
Categories
Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Introduction Pacific slope

Birding the University of Peace, Costa Rica

Many birders that visit Costa Rica end up with an afternoon or a morning to kill in San Jose or the Central Valley. With so few options for birding in the sprawl of concrete and asphalt, most opt to relax in the garden of their hotel, visit a market in San Jose, or buy souvenirs. If you are birding with public transportation, then the constraints imposed by bus schedules and routes unfortunately leave you with little choice but to resort to such rather non birdy activities. If you have a rental car, though, forget the souvenirs and head over to the University of Peace. You can always find the same painted feathers, glass-enclosed Morpho Butterflies, and tee-shirts emblazoned with dolphins and “pura vida” while traveling between birding sites, and since you are in Costa Rica, you’ve got to keep your priorities in straight in any case.

The University of Peace (U. la Paz) is located at the southwestern edge of the Central Valley near Ciudad Colon and is a welcome change of tranquility and green space from the crowded Central Valley. Although it’s unfortunately not on any bus route, by car, it takes only 40 minutes (or more with traffic) to drive there from San Jose. It’s also pretty easy to get to by following the signs to Santa Ana, Cuidad Colon, and then the U la Paz. Once you get out of Ciudad Colon, the “Rodeo Drive” road along the way is also nice for a variety of common species that utilize the scrubby fields and semi-shaded coffee plantations. During brief stops along this road last week, I had my first male Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year along with things like Boat-billed Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Short-tailed Hawk. This route looked especially nice for birding from a bicycle.

We didn’t stop too much though because we figured our time was better spent at the U la Paz. I honestly don’t know much about this small, quiet university (majors in peace offered?), except that this learning institution has a private park with a fair amount of moist, Pacific-Slope forest, and an entrance fee of only 300 colones! This is another major reason for visiting U la Paz since this fee amounts to less than a dollar while most other parks in Costa Rica cost $8 just to waltz along the trails.

There is a pond at the entrance with the usual domesticated Chinese Swan Geese and Muscovies. The Muscovies were placid while the geese were typically belligerant and nasty. Luckily they were on the other side of the pond. For unknown reasons, the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Montezuma Oropendolas that had been so plentiful around the pond in January were nowhere in sight. I suppose the ducks were galavanting through the countryside to take advantage of the abundant habitat by the rainy season. The oropendolas, though, have no such excuse other than taking (or giving) weaving classes at the adjacent U la Paz.

A friendly, feral Muscovy- wild ones don’t have those white specs.

Past the pond, we had a pretty good morning birding the forest edge and main trail at U la Paz considering that we didn’t arrive until 9 am, the absolute quietest time of the day for birds. The first bird action we ran into was at the start of the trail where a party of Groove-billed Anis were hanging out on a log and in the grass.

They were loathe to leave their log and upon closer inspection we found out why.

Army Ants! Long, black trails of army ants were swarming through the grass and over the logs. The anis were having a grand old time letting the ants flush their prey out of hiding as were Rufous-naped Wrens, Clay-colored Robins, Rufous-capped Warblers, and Brown Jays.

This Rufous-naped Wren got my vote for friendliest bird of the day. It jostled back and forth and poised along the same tree branches for at least 15 minutes and allowed us to take dozens of photos.

Overall the bird diversity at the swarm was pretty low but it was still fun to watch how common species took advantage of it.

Clay-colored Robin pretending to be an antbird.

Walking into the forest, we didn’t have long to go before running into a nice mixed flock along a stream. The nucleus species of the flock appeared to be Red-crowned Ant-tanager. It was too dark to get photos so you will just have to trust me when I say that the males are a deep, handsome red, and the females an unexciting shade of brown (a lot like a Clay-colored Robin). This widespread neotropical bird is rather local and tough to see in Costa Rica with the U la Paz area possibly being the easiest site in the country for this, my #499th species for the year. Other birds that appeared to be hanging out with the ant-tanagers with this and two other mixed flocks we ran into were Rufous and white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Rufous-capped Warblers, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-Olive Flycatcher, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Long-tailed Manakin, and Blue-black Grosbeak.

Further on, we finally tracked down one of the many Blue-throated Goldentails that were maddeningly singing over and over from hidden perches. This beautiful hummingbird with the plastic looking bill is fairly common along forest edge of the Pacific Slope in Costa Rica.

The first half of the trail at U la Paz winds through old orchards with rather few birds. Once the overlook is reached, the trail accesses some very nice, moist forest with an open understory.

The overlook.

We didn’t see too much in this area because of the time of day but still managed a large group of White-faced Capuchins that seemed to be attended by Brown Jays, more of the same species we had already been seeing, and a couple of Fiery-billed Aracaris!

We left the forest around 11:30- the perfect time for mixed flocks and sure enough we ran into a bunch of common, edge species that were hanging out together in an open, park-like area. One of them was a Baltimore oriole masquerading as a Western Tanager.

A Blue-crowned Motmot also made a pleasant addition to the flock,

as did a Boat-billed Flycatcher that foraged low enough for me to finally get good shots of this species (they usually stick to the tree-tops).

Other species in the flock were Squirrel Cuckoo, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Masked Tityra, Yellow-thoated Vireo, Rufous-naped Wren, Clay-colored Robin, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Summer Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, and Rose-throated Becard.

A male Rose-throated Becard. I know, no rose throat- gotta go to Mexico to see that.

Overall, the U of Paz is nice birding and a great escape from the Central Valley if you have a free morning or afternoon and a rental car to get you there. I hope to bird there in the early morning sometime as I am sure it has a lot more to offer than what we saw during our short visit.