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Costa Rica, July 2020- Where I Would Prefer to be Birding

July in Costa Rica, a month marked by a respite from the rains. Birding tours take advantage of the break in the weather to come to Costa Rica and watch quetzals, Emerald Tanagers, and three dozen hummingbird species. They could just as well catch the same exciting wave of birding on trips to Costa Rica in June, September, or any other month of the year but for the visiting birder, a chance of sun beckons more than a promise of rain. Personally, I almost prefer the rain because although I may need to sit out the birding game during those occasional thunderstorms, the cloudy innings are going to be full of avian excitement. There are times when the mixed flocks just don’t stop and when a fruiting tree dishes up a constant, parading banquet of tanagers.

Emerald Tanager

Blue-and gold Tanager

Such a birding boost tends to happen more on days of cloud and rain although I will admit that a few sunny days are nice. This is why July typically brings us some very welcome groups of birders during an otherwise slow and low season and of course, that bit of July business acts as an important injection of economic activity for every aspect of the tourism industry, birding included.

In a normal July, visit Carara National Park, Monteverde, or other sites and you might run into a birding tour or two. You might feel the lifer excitement emanating from other birders as they see their first Red-capped Manakins, watch flocks of parrots fly past the overlook at Cerro Lodge, locate a speck of a hawk-eagle flying high as it calls from above.

The tower view at Cerro Lodge, an excellent spot for views and shots of flyby parrots.

Not this July but we all know that 2020 isn’t a year for much of anything typical. While trying to stay well, and survive both literally and economically, blessed are those of us who can still find time for birding. Many find more than enough time even if the birding does take place at or close to home. In doing so, in hearing the descending calls of a White-eared Ground-Sparrow, at least we can be reminded that avian diversity can occur much closer to home than expected, that many birds can thrive in a variety of settings.

It’s wonderful to have parrots, ground-sparrows, and other interesting birds near our place in Heredia, Costa Rica but even the most appreciative of birders need occasional changes to their avian scene. Out back, I look past the vine-ridden second growth of the riparian zone and urge my gaze up onto the slopes of the nearby mountains, the volcanoes that host barbets, Black-cheeked Warblers, even quetzals. Some of my wanted year birds are up there doing their thing. In a July sans pandemic, I would probably be birding up that way.

White-eared Ground-Sparrow- I hear this cool bird out back on a daily basis.

I might bird the Poas area although would more likely be checking out a road that borders the cloud forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. That less traveled way connecting Varablanca in the highlands to Socorro in the foothills offers a precious glimpse into wilderness that may host Solitary Eagle and other rare birds. Would I get lucky with antpittas and ground-cuckoos species at an antswarm? Would a forest-falcon make a sudden, stealthy appearance? When the forest is intact, when its lush, complicated body of green and moss and massive trees creeps up and down ravines for several kilometers, it feels like anything is possible.

A view along this road.

With high clearance and a four wheel drive, a birder can explore that exciting byway, bird the way down to lower elevations where glittering flocks of tanagers move through the bromeliads, where White Hawks call from the mist, where we can find hawk-eagles and other birds of the deep wild places. In fact, forget the vehicle, a trek down that road would be an exciting expedition coupled with the promise of avian adventure. The trek would provide much needed insight into raptor and cotinga populations. It might tell us if umbrellabirds still inhabit those forests, and might even reveal the presence of unicorn birds like the Gray-headed Piprites and the Black-crowned Antpitta.

It would be best to do this erstwhile expedition for at least three nights, camping along the way. Maybe four would be even better because the more time you spend in quality tropical habitat, the more you see, the better the chance of detecting a higher percentage of what is truly there. It’s like opening the window to see just a bit more, the stuff that was just outside of view, gazing longer at a complex painting to eventually find treasures hidden in plain sight.

Even with that window of focused observation, it still wouldn’t be everything because birds wander, some are in constant natural stealth mode, tropical birds play by their own complex set of rules. But, you won’t find anything if you don’t look and a trek down that road will reveal more of what’s going on than a one-day, bumpy drive. I hope I can do that mini-expedition some day, explore that road at leisure because no matter what I find, I already know that the birding will be nothing less than fantastic.

One of the best places to use as a base while exploring the Varablanca-Socorro road is Albergue Socorro. With luck, in 2021, another lodge with fantastic birding potential in this area will also be open and ready to impress. To learn more about where to look for birds in Costa Rica and to get ready for any type of birding trip to this beautiful country, please support my blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy birding!

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Common Birds of the Cafetal

Coffee farms or “cafetales” aren’t one of the original natural habitats of Costa Rica but since they have been here for more than 100 years, a lot of birds have become adapted to this “modern” green space. Although biodiversity on coffee farms depends on how many trees are present and degree of pesticide use, they can harbor a good number of birds and other wildlife.

The types of plants and animals housed among rows of dark green bushes with occasional trees can’t compare to the ecological latticework of moist forests and wetlands that would naturally occur in the Central Valley. That said, any vegetation is better than no vegetation and in an increasingly urban environment, cafetales act as important verdant patches in a landscape dominated by concrete, glass, and asphalt.

Do you find yourself joining the family on a coffee tour when you would rather be watching Fiery-throated Hummingbirds and quetzals on Poas? Not to fret, bring those binos because there are birds in the coffee! Some cool birds live in those wonderful, special bean producing bushes. These are ten of them:

Crested Bobwhite

If you are familar with bobwhites and hear one calling in Costa Rica, look around because it’s more than likely not a birding flashback. The Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite sounds pretty much like the ones up north. They prefer grassy, weedy fields but also occur in cafetales especially when they have a grassy understory and are adjacent to weedy fields.

Short-tailed Hawk

This small raptor is a common hawk in many parts of Costa Rica. It seems to do well in the mosaic of riparian zones, patches of forest, and agricultural lands of the Central Valley. Watch for both morphs soaring high overhead.

Blue-vented Hummingbird

This hummingbird can feed from the flowers on coffee bushes and trees that grow at the edges of and in coffee farms. It’s pretty common, listen for its distinctive double-noted, short whistled call. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is the other most common hummingbird in coffee farms.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

One of various flycatchers that occur on coffee farms, this species often reveals itself with a vocalization that sounds kind of like a scream. Watch for it feeding on berries and other small fruits.

Clay-colored Thrush

No coffee farm in Costa Rica is complete without a healthy selection of Clay-colored Thrushes. One of the most common species in the country, expect to see lots of Costa Rica’s national bird when birding coffee farm habitats.

Blue-gray Tanager

A common, beautiful bird, watching this species in coffee farms is a peaceful pleasure.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Endemic and likely made rare by a combination of reduced habitat, feral cats, pesticides, and cowbird parasitism, this colorful little towheee persists on and near coffee farms. It is a skulker though, watch for it in the early morning.

Grayish Saltator

One of the most common species of the Central Valley, this seemingly cardinal relative does very well in garden and edge habitats. Its cheerful song is a core component of the Central Valley’s auditory soundscape.

Yellow-green Vireo

Another common species of the valley but only during the wet season. Like the Red-eyed Vireo, it sings a real lot. It also occurs in just about any set of trees including ones in and near coffee.

Rufous-capped Warbler

A snappy, chat-like bird, the Rufous-capped Warbler lives in the understory of dry and moist forest, in second growth, and in coffee fields. This is one of the more common, typical species of coffee farms.

These are some of the species to watch for and expect when birding any green space in the Central Valley. Want to learn much more about about where to find birds in Costa Rica and support this blog at the same time? Purchase my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Plan for out trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, customize it and use it identify everything from motmots to flycatchers while birding in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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Advice for Birding the Cerro Lodge Entrance Road

Cerro Lodge is the place to stay when bathing in the mega-birding in and around Carara National Park. Other options include the oft-used Villa Lapas, the sometimes crowded Punta Leona, the new Macaw Lodge back in the hills on the other side of the park, and at least one hotel right in the middle of tiny Tarcoles. However, none of them share the blend of proximity, and diverse array of birds not found in the park possible around Cerro Lodge.

One of those birds is White-throated Magpie-Jay- we had these and others near Cerro.

Part of Cerro’s appeal comes from the birdy entrance road. This unassuming dirt road passes through open areas with scattered trees, second growth, and part of a river floodplain that results in a host of good birds. Whether staying at Cerro or not, this road is worth some serious binocular time. A couple of hours on that road that week reminded me of its worth as a site unto itself, here’s some advice on birding it :

  • Make time for this site: If you have plans to enter the national park, check out the road from 6 until 7 (opening time for the park during the dry season), or until 8 (opening hour at other times of the year). Or, if you have an extra day of birding, spend a full day on this road. Like every high diversity site, the more you bird it, the more you find, especially since the habitats also seem to act as a corridor between mangroves, other forest, and the park itself.

It’s also good for lots of common and edge species like this Lineated Woodpecker,

and Rose-throated (not) Becard.

  • Quality birds: If someone ever tells you that all birds are “quality” or that every bird is the same, they are either masquerading as a birder, or don’t know the difference between “common” and “rare”. Quality birds are the ones we don’t see that often, can’t really be seen elsewhere, or happen to be major targets because they look so cool. In other words, endangered and rare species, endemics, and stuff like Double-striped Thick-Knee. In the case of the Cerro Lodge road, it hosts a bunch of those quality species including the cool and crazy thick-knee.

Its cool, its crazy, its got thick knees and hypnotic golden eyes.

  • Double-striped Thick-knee: This target seems to be more frequent on the entrance road than in the past. Check for it in one of the first open pastures, and in the pastures in the floodplain. We saw 6 last week.
  • Crane Hawk: The road is one of the better places in Costa Rica to see this odd raptor. Watch for it flopping its way through the trees in the canopy or near the ground anywhere along the road. It also soars on occasion. We had rather distant looks at two different Crane Hawks.
  • Other raptors: Hang out on this road long enough and you have a chance at a pretty good variety of raptors. The long sight lines and birdy habitats offer chances at such other species as Gray-headed, Hook-billed, and Plumbeous Kites, occasional Harris’s Hawk and Pearl Kite (in the floodplain), Short-tailed, Broad-winged, Gray, Roadside, Zone-tailed, and Common Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Collared Forest-Falcon, and both caracaras. Even Tiny Hawk has nested on the road in the past!

Short-tailed Hawk is one of the most frequently seen raptor species in Costa Rica.

  • Owls: Cerro is known as a site for Black and white Owl and this species can also show on the road along with Mottled, Striped, Barn, and Pacific Screech Owls. Not to mention, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is common during the day.
  • Swifts: Spot-fronted and Black Swifts are sometimes seen from the road in the morning along with more common White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts.
  • Psittacids: This can be a great area for parrots, parakeets, and their kin as they visit fruiting trees and move to and from roosting and foraging sites. The numbers and species vary throughout the year but lucky birders might see every possible species in one morning, mostly as flyovers. If not, it’s still pretty normal to see Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots, and Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets.
  • Good variety of dry forest species: Expect several dry forest species, including Black-headed  Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Nutting’s and Brown-crested Flycatchers, occasional Stub-tailed Spadebill, Banded and Plain Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Stripe-headed and Olive Sparrows, Painted Bunting, and so on.

This is a good site for Nutting’s Flycatcher-  it looks almost exactly like the local variety of the Brown-crested but check out the small bill.

  • Keep an eye out for the cotinga: Last but not least, Yellow-billed Cotinga moves through this area, maybe even once or twice a day. The size of this population is very small (and, sadly, will likely disappear from the Carara area within ten years) but the few remaining birds are seen now and then near Cerro Lodge and in trees near the floodplain.
  • Bring a scope: It comes in handy when checking out distant crowns of trees and open areas.
  • Check the small marsh at the edge of the floodplain: It’s been so dry, this small wetland might not even be around when you visit. But, if so, check it for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and other expected wetland species, possible American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and rarities like Masked Duck and maybe even a rail or two.

How to get there: From the turn off to Jaco on the Caldera highway, drive five minutes and watch for the turn off to Guacalillo on the right. Go a bit further and watch for the Cabinas Vasija on the left. The road will start going down a hill and shortly after comes to the entrance road to Cerro Lodge (the next road on the right). Be careful, it’s easy to miss!

For more information about how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, the most comprehensive bird-finding guide for the country.

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How to See Spot-bellied Bobwhite in Costa Rica

We birders like to describe the way we go about watching birds. If we just look at the birds in the backyard and flip through the field guide once in a while, we might say that we are pretty darn casual about birding. If we go on field trips with a local birding group and try to see and identify certain target birds, we are a bit more serious about it. Those of us who look forward to birding at every opportunity, spend way too many hours studying bird songs on Xeno-Canto, and travel to other countries to see new birds instead of relaxing on the beach are probably a bit more than serious about the passion of birding. So those distinctions are great and known among the birding community but what do they have to do with seeing “wild chickens”?

First of all, no matter how you define yourself as a birder, we have to get something straight- the only real, wild chicken is the Red Junglefowl. It does indeed look like a reddish chicken but huskies also look kind of like wolves, and when it comes down to it, the chicken is a domesticated junglefowl. Well, no matter how you want to define a chicken, keep in mind that we don’t refer to wolves as “dogs” and if Aurochs were still around, we wouldn’t be calling those massive hooved beasts “Bessie”.  So, I wonder why, if we don’t keep grouse, tragopans, or bobwhites as pets, do some birders still write them off as “chickens”? This is really just an excuse to ignore those shy ground birds because they can be a royal pain to actually see. However, they still quality as birds and since every bird counts, here is some info on seeing Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite in Costa Rica:

  • Don’t look in the forest: Forested habitats in Costa Rica are inhabited by chicken-like birds but they aren’t bobwhites. Those are the wood-quails and in keeping with grouse, can be a real pain. If you want to see wood-quails, look for them in places like the cloud forests in the Monteverde areas, forests in the Talamancas (like San Gerardo de Dota), and the Osa Peninsula. The bobwhites live in weedy, brushy fields.
  • Coffee fields in the Central Valley: Go birding at the edge of a coffee cultivation and you might see some bobwhites. Pick an area of coffee with few people and no dogs, scan the edge of the trail or road as far ahead as you can see, and they might appear in your field of view. They probably occur up to around 1,400 meters.

    A road at the edge of a coffee cultivation- there are bobwhites in this picture.
  • Scan the edges of roads in the dry northwest: By “dry northwest”, I mean anywhere on the Pacific slope from just north of Cerro Lodge on up to Nicaragua and up to 1,200 meters or so. Keep checking as far ahead as you can see to surprise the bobwhites before they see you and run for cover.

    Use the car as cover and they might come close.

    Bobwhites creeping forward.
  • Early morning, late afternoon: As with almost every diurnal bird, this is the best time to see bobwhites. It’s when they call more often and scurry around in search of food.

    A female bobwhite walks close by.

    Followed by a male.
  • Calling birds: This works if the bird is calling from an exposed spot but if not, don’t expect it to show. They aren’t very responsive to playback of their whistled “bob-white” call either.
  • A few good sites: Spot-bellied Bobwhite can turn up just about anywhere in the Central Valley and in the Pacific northwest wherever weedy fields are present. That said, some of the better areas might be Ensenada, Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road to Palo Verde, and Santa Rosa National Park. In the Central Valley, check any roads that go through coffee cultivations and open, weedy fields.

    Like other wild chicken-like birds, they are adept at being sneaky. Take a careful look in the coffee fields.

To learn more about finding birds and the birding at these and nearly every site in Costa Rica, get How to See, Identify, and Find Birds in Costa Rica.

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Preparing for a Birding Trip to Costa Rica? Get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”!

When we take birding trips, there are two main books that us birders buy. We all know that those two essentials are (1) a field guide, and (2) a bird-finding book. While some of us forego the bird finding books because we are on a tour or want to save on packing space, most of us usually buy one before the trip. A good bird-finding guide helps with planning, lets us know what to expect, where to go, and ups the excitement level for the trip.

Costa Rica has had its fair share of bird finding guides, including a good one that came out less than ten years ago. However, most bird-finding guides are limited to a certain amount of space because it just isn’t cost-effective to publish a bird-finding tome rather than a heavily edited book with fewer pages. This leaves out many a lesser known yet valuable site as well as a cornucopia of other useful information for planning a birding trip. One solution to the extra pages/publishing conundrum is the E-book; the platform I chose for  “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.

More a Costa Rican birding companion than a site guide, this book has been many years in the making. I toyed with the idea of writing something that would present information on finding as well as identifying birds in Costa Rica ever since my second trip there in 1994. As I birded my way around several parts of Costa Rica, such questions came to mind as: If antbirds were supposed to be common, where were they? How do you find motmots, puffbirds, tinamous, and other neotropical birds? Where were all of the raptors? And what about identification of woodcreepers?

This book aims to answers these and many other questions about birding in Costa Rica to help birders of all levels prepare for trips to this country as well as other areas in the neotropical region. It’s also a site guide and although I haven’t included every site in the country, this book is, by far, the most comprehensive birding site guide for Costa Rica. I had hoped to make it available by the end of 2014 but, as it turns out, it just took much longer than expected. However, I am happy to say that this first edition is finally done and available for use on PCs, tablets, and smartphones (once an Adobe Reader app. is downloaded onto the device). Buy this e-book for $24.99 if you would like to see and identify more birds in Costa Rica, and if you would like to support this blog.

A few screen shots from the book:

Information from the second section of the book:

Tips for Identification:

An excerpt from the site guide section:

To order this e-book,

please contact Pat O’Donnell at information@birdingcraft.com.