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Recent Birding Highlights from Lands in Love

Over the past week, I have been pretty busy with guiding around Carara, Lands in Love, and Braulio Carrillo. Birding overall, has been kind of slow because of the unusually dry weather on the Caribbean slope (yeah, it may be the dry season but that lack of rain is supposed to be reserved for the Pacific side), but the place has still produced some nice birds.

Forest birding has been pretty slow but still turned up a Semiplumbeous Hawk. This lowland species was also been recently reported by other guests of Lands in Love.

A Semiplumbeous Hawk watches for prey from the canopy.

Despite the sunny, happy raptor flying conditions, the only other “good” raptor species has been King Vulture seen soaring from the Loveat Cafe. That said, it’s always worth watching for hawk-eagles and who knows what else.

The trails have turned up a few mixed understory flocks with Streak-crowned Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner but not too much else. If it would rain, I bet they will be really good and oh how the Caribbean slope needs rain! Since we are talking about forests that evolved with 4,000 meters per year and rain almost every day, dry conditions are not going to do anything good for the habitat.

Back to birds. Although I haven’t seen any Snowcaps at Lands in Love recently, flowering Erythrinas have been attracting Blue-throated Goldentail and should bring in some other nice hummingbirds. The best hummingbird, though, was a White-tipped Sicklebill heard and briefly seen on the beginning on the main trail. There are a lot of Heliconias in that area so keep an eye out for this mega hermit creature.

One day, antswarms were pretty good in the habitat right below the cabins. We saw a few Bicolored, at least three Ocellated, and a couple of Spotted. Other birds may have been with the ants as well but it was too difficult to look into the habitat to see them.

Spotted Antbird.
A rear view of that Spotted Antbird.

Speaking of that dense habitat, there were also one or two Sepia-capped Flycatchers, Northern Bentbill, Black-faced Anthrush, the usual Black-throated Wrens, White-collared Manakin, Red-throated Ant Tanager, and Black-headed Tody Flycatcher calling from the canopy.

As is typical for the area, we also had good looks at Tropical Parula.

Outside of the forest, we have had good looks at plenty of Black-mandibled and Keel-billed Toucans, occasional Crested Guans, oropendolas, and a good variety of edge species. One of the best were a pair of Great Curassows feeding on guava fruits at the edge of a horse pasture! It was fascinating to watch the male fly into a low guava tree to then knock the fruits to the ground. He then flew down to feed on them along with the female.

A bad hand held shot of a male Great Curassow in a Guava tree.
It was also nice to get looks at a pair of Gray necked Wood Rails hanging out at the ponds.

It’s the type of place where you always see something good. I can’t wait to go back so I can find Keel-billed Motmot, ground cuckoo, and other rarities.

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Trip Report from a Recent Birding Trip to Laguna del Lagarto (part dos)

5 AM, September 8th, Laguna del Lagarto

Whether guiding a trip like this one or out birding for fun, I’m always out in the field by dawn. On this day, I ventured outside when it was still dark to listen for migrants. None were heard and the owls were quiet (of the 6 or 7 species present at this site) but some of the other birds that typically call in the crepuscular hours were revealing themselves. A couple of Green Ibis gave their odd, growling calls from one of the lagoons as a Collared Forest Falcon called from the forest. The sounds of woodcreepers also signal dawn when birding in Costa Rica and Laguna was no exception with Northern Barred, Streak-headed, Cocoa, and Black-striped all sounding off. Rufous-tailed and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds were also coming awake with squeeky sounding calls.

It was light enough to see in a matter of minutes and as I walked over to the essential morning cup of coffee, pairs of Red-lored Parrots began to call and fly overhead. Small flocks of Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets were also seen and more of the same species from yesterday were chipping from the trees and coming down to the feeder.

After that first cup of coffee, we decided to head back to the garden to relocate the Pied Puffbirds from the previous evening and try once again for White-fronted Nunbird. Despite calling for them in the same place where we had seen them, the puffbirds pulled a now-show. As for their orange-billed cousins, forget about it. They were nowhere to be seen or heard. Nor did Central American Pygmy-Owl vocalize or reveal itself- they might be quiet at that time of the year. So, after the garden we checked the compost heap to see if something rare like an Olive-backed Quail-Dove happened to be foraging for easy pickings. That wasn’t to be but we were at least entertained by a family of funny looking Gray-necked Wood-Rails.

When we passed by the entrance to the trails, the group also got fantastic looks at a pair of Great Curassows! These large, fancy Cracids are very rare or gone from many parts of their accessible range due to an unfortunate inability to withstand just about any amount of hunting. Luckily, in Costa Rica, they are fairly easy to see at a few lodges and sites where they receive enough protection.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

One can never get enough of those curly-crested Great Curassows.

After the curassows displayed their greatness and walked off into the leafy understory, we ventured out onto the road that goes in front of the lodge. With forest on one side and open areas on the other, it offers exciting opportunities for a huge variety of birds.

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View of lowland rainforest and one of the lagoons from the road.

We quickly got onto more Olive-throated Parakeets, and saw typical lowland fare like toucans, Collared Aracari, Yellow Tyrannulet, tityras, Shining Honeycreepers, White-vented Euphonia, Short-billed Pigeons, and other species. Our best bird was arguably the cool-looking Scaled Pigeon that perched high up in an isolated tree near a couple of Short-billeds. Ironically, the Scaled has much more of a red-colored bill than the Red-billed Pigeon but I admit that it’s pretty darn scaly too. Not long after the Scaled Pigeon, the time came to head back to the lodge for a true breakfast of Gallo Pinto (rice and beans), eggs, fruit, toast, and most importantly, more coffee.

While half of the group rested up after breakfast or canoed in one of the lagoons to search for the Agami Heron,  I led the other half  into the forest. As is typical of mid-morning in lowland rainforest, the low bird activity was far more conducive for studying plants. Not that we did that, but it would have been wonderful if a botanist could have accompanied us.

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We could have learned about beautiful trees like these.

birding Costa Rica

Or this one with me doing the requisite photo of standing in front of an old growth rainforest giant.

It was a beautiful walk in those humid, hallowed green halls but plants weren’t the only things we saw. Our patience and careful observation eventually paid off with views of Western Slaty Antshrike, Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens, and Tawny-faced Gnatwren. All of these except for the antshrike were moving together in a small mixed flock. The calls of the gnatwren gave them away and it took a while for the others to come into view but they eventually did and we all got pretty good looks at these uncommon rainforest species.

After the mixed flock, we heard but only got glimpses of Tawny-crested Tanager and became excited upon seeing army ants (!). I heard a Bicolored Antbird and figured that we were in store for some antbird action but just couldn’t locate the front of the swarm. Nevertheless, we at least got some brief looks at a fancy Ocellated Antbird just before walking out of the forest to avoid a downpour.

Back at the lodge, Connie showed us what they saw from the boat- in addition to seeing the Agami Heron, they also saw a roosting Crested Owl! Off several of us went on a short yet fateful expedition in search of those quality birds. Although the sun was shining when we boarded the boats, this turned out to be nothing but a ruse that ended up soaking us to the core. At least the rain was warm and we saw both the heron and the owl but tragedy struck when my digital recording device got wet. It can play vocalizations in its memory banks but appears to no longer be capable of making recordings. I hope I can fix it soon!

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The fateful canoe ride.

The rest of our birding on Saturday took place on the balcony, from a boat on the San Carlos river for some of the group, and during another walk in the forest. No tinamous and no responses from Tawny-faced Quail but it was a nice walk anyways and that evening, some of us got very close looks at Short-tailed Nighthawk doing its big bat impression just off the balcony and saw a flyover Green Ibis. No further luck with nocturnal birds that night and most of us crashed by about 8.

5AM, September 9th, Laguna del Lagarto

Another dawn walk turned up the same species as the day before. After coffee, we decided to bird down the front road again but this time, heading back towards Boca Tapada. This part of the road is forested on both sides and has a couple of wetlands. Things were pretty quiet and we skunked out on the nunbirds once again but still managed to see Black-throated Trogon, perched Mealy Parrot, toucans, Dot-winged Antwrens, Lesser Greenlets, and called in a Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant that was missed by most because it’s basically a bug with feathers.

More lines of army ants were found right on the road and we could hear both Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds but much to our frustration, we couldn’t close enough to the forest edge to see them! Nor would those denizens of the shady forest understory even come close to the edge. Plain-brown and Northern Barred Woodcreepers ventured into view though and most of us got looks at those ant-following birds.

After the swarm, it was time to head back to the lodge for breakfast and to do the bird list for the trip. With a longish drive ahead of them, everyone except Susan and I left for home. We decided to go for another walk in the forest to look for those elusive ground birds (can you tell that I need the quail for a lifer? I heard it in Ecuador once but the only ones we heard on this trip were the quail whistles from my own puckered lips). It was a beautiful walk in the forest in any case and the back area in particular looks really good. If you visit, I suggest walking straight back into the forest before dawn and hanging out there deep in the woods as it gets light. It might offer your best chance at getting birds like Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, that elusive little quail, Tapir or even Jaguar. I can’t wait to try that on my next visit.

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Looking up into the canopy.

We eventually ran into some birds and the calls of Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, and Yellow-margined Flycatcher hinted at a mixed flock deep in the forest but our best find was of the reptile variety. Right next to the trail was a medium-sized Boa Constrictor. After giving it a healthy detour, I digiscoped its head.

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Boa Constrictor at Laguna del Lagarto.

Upon leaving the forest, an adult Ornate Hawk Eagle called and soared above the parking lot (of course after everyone had hit the road). We packed and began the four and a half hour drive back. Sunny weather made for few birds along the way but we did manage to find out where the Great Green Macaws were! Just as we approached San Miguel, we counted a group of 33 of these majestic endangered birds as they flew near the base of the first mountain ridge from south to north around 3:00 PM.  To me, it looked like they were making a beeline for Chilamate or the La Virgen area.

To sum the experience up, Laguna delivered pretty much just as it did a year and a half ago. Rooms were nice and clean, service was pretty much outstanding and food was pretty good. As for the birds, not as many came to the feeders (it’s better during January to April), and that time of the year is also better for Great Green Macaw but we still had a great selection of birds. Everyone got to see Agami Heron from a canoe, most saw the roosting Crested Owl, antwrens and antbirds were nice, we had 7 species of woodcreepers (Spotted was heard only), Pied Puffbird, close looks at Great Curassow and Slate-colored Grosbeak, Bat Falcon (two in our group saw it snatch a bat!), Ornate Hawk-Eagle for Susan and I, Scaled Pigeon, thousands of migrating Mississippi Kites, White-vented Euphonias, a very likely Green and Rufous Kingfisher glimpsed by Susan, and wonderful looks at parrots and parakeets. My only complaint is that I wish I could stay at least a week because when you spend just two nights at rich, lowland sites like Laguna del Lagarto, you barely scratch the surface.

On a side note,  a four-wheel drive vehicle would be best for the road to the lodge.

To see more information about birds and birding in Costa Rica, see Costa Rica Living and Birding at http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress

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Heliconias Lodge: some of the best birding in Costa Rica

With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica

I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.

Volcan Tenorio- an excellent site for birding in Costa Rica.

Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.

On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.

View of Volcan Miravalles from Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from Heliconias Lodge.

I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.

Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.

Crested Owl, birding Costa Rica

I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).

White-fronted Nunbird, birding Costa Rica

White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.

Canopy bridge at Heliconias, Costa Rica- great for birding Costa Rica

My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.

This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.

Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:

Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.

Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.

American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.

Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.

Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!

Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.

Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.

Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.

Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.

Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.

Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.

Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.

I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.

Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.

If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:

  • It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
  • The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
  • The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Heliconias, Costa Rica

Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on  this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.

  • Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.

Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).

I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).

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A Dozen Birds to watch for when Birding Costa Rica part one

Michigan “has” the Kirtland’s Warbler, we thought that Arkansas had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (who knows-maybe it still does), and Texas is the easiest place to see endangered Whooping Cranes.

So what does Costa Rica “have”? Which birds are easier to see in its rainforests, cloud forests, montane oak forests, mangroves, and edge habitats than elsewhere?

Birders use range maps to get an idea of which birds they might encounter but experienced birders also read trip reports and information about the natural history of their target species because they know how misleading those maps can be!  These visual aids can make it seem like a bird species is evenly distributed within that splotch of color when in reality, the bird in question has a more spotty distribution determined by patchy microhabitats.

Good field guides try to avoid the fomentation of false birding expectations by providing text that details aspects of habitat, behavior, and rarity but it’s still easier to just look at the range map and expect to see the bird.

Although tempting, this methodology for planning a birding trip to the tropics could result in a lot of frustration because for many birds the situation is much more complicated.

For example, a range map for Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet might show this broad swath of color that blankets southeastern Mexico and colors its way down through Central America to Costa Rica. Likewise, the Lovely Cotinga is represented by a blanket of color that enshrouds southeastern Mexico, and the Caribbean slope of Central America south to Costa Rica.

Oh, these two species do occur in Costa Rica, but don’t expect to see them! Here in Costa Rica, both the tyrannulet and the cotinga are pretty rare and local (who knows why?). They are, however, more common and easier to see up in Mexico or Honduras.

Costa Rica is at the southern limit of their ranges, so that might have something to do with it, but for some other bird species, possible reasons for their absence aren’t so forthcoming.

For example, Wing-banded Antbird is known to occur in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua found to the north of Costa Rica and in some lowland rainforest areas of Panama to the south of Costa Rica. So why can’t you see this strange antbird when birding Costa Rica? Nobody knows although the answer is probably related to any number of factors such as habitat differences, competition, and biogeography. One a side note, the main birding guide at Rara Avis swears that he saw this species in the foothill rainforests of this site on two occasions.

Likewise, don’t expect to see Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica despite the presence of seemingly good habitat. Although this beautiful, tropical falcon is on the Costa Rican list, it may have never occurred in the country despite residing in forests to the north and to the south.

Instead of focusing on bird species that are rare or that don’t occur in Costa Rica, though, let’s focus on the bird species that you are more likely to seen when birding Costa Rica (excluding Cocos Island) than elsewhere in their range.

In systematic order…

1. Great Curassow. This neotropical turkey-looking thing with a curly crest has a large range that extends from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador. However, since it probably tastes as good as a turkey but lays far fewer eggs,  it has become extirpated by over-hunting in most accessible areas. Although the Great Curassow has declined in Costa Rica too, they aren’t too difficult to see in the larger national parks and protected areas such as Santa Rosa National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and most of all, at La Selva. With wild, tame individuals strolling the grounds of La Selva, this has got to be the most reliable and accessible place in the world to see the magnificent Great Curassow.

2. Black Guan. Almost by default, Costa Rica is the place to see this neat looking guan of the highlands because of its limited range.  Only found in Costa Rica and western Panama, although I don’t think it’s too difficult to see on the slopes of Volcan Baru, Panama, it’s pretty easy to see at several sites in Costa Rica. The Black Guan is pretty common in any of the protected highland forests of Costa Rica like Monteverde, Tapanti, and Cerro de la Muerte.

3. Black-breasted Wood-Quail. Like the Black Guan, this wood-quail is only found in the highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is definitely easier to see in Costa Rica, especially so in forests of the Monteverde area.

4. Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The large range of this raptor makes its placement on this list somewhat debatable but from personal experience, I still think it’s easier to see in Costa Rica than many other places. You can find it at any number of areas with extensive rainforest when birding Costa Rica. Corcovado and Braulio Carrillo are especially good sites. I watch this awesome eagle on 70% of visits to Quebrada Gonzalez (!).

5. Chiriqui and Buff-fronted Quail-Doves. These can also be seen in western Panama, but there are more sites for them in the mountains of Costa Rica. Like all quail-doves, they aren’t exactly easy to see, but you have a pretty good chance of running into the Chiriqui at the Finca Ecologica or Bajo del Tigre trail in Monteverde, and the Buff-fronted in the Monteverde cloud forests or on Cerro de la Muerte.

6. Black-and-white Owl. These are more common than birders think and can be seen in many places, but the easiest ones are in the Orotina plaza. Expect more stake-outs of other owl species in Costa Rica later this year…

7. Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds. Also found in western Panama, the fancy Fiery-throated and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds are found at more accessible sites and feeders in the highlands of Costa Rica.

Fiery-throateds at La Georgina
female Volcano Hummingbird, Volcan Barva

8. Mangrove Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. Well, they aren’t found anywhere else so you have got to see them here! The emerald is pretty easy at feeders in Monteverde, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and San Luis, but the Mangrove is tough. Check for it in any flowering mangroves on the Pacific Slope.

male Coppery-headed Emerald, Cinchona

9. Black-bellied Hummingbird. It also occurs on Panama but is pretty easy and accessible at Tapanti.

Black-bellied Hummingbird, El Silencio

10. All three mountain gems. These also occur in the highland forests of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but are easier to see at various, more easily accessible sites in Costa Rica. The Purple-throated is one of the most common highland hummingbirds, the White-bellied is easily seen at Tapanti, and the White-throated is common in the oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte.

male White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Cinchona
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem Varablanca
male White-throated Mountain-Gem El Copal

11. White-crested Coquette. This fantastic little bird also occurs in western Panama but it’s more widespread and easier in Costa Rica. It’s not exactly common but not too difficult to see if you find flowering trees with the small flowers it prefers (although I have also seen it take nectar from massive Balsa flowers!).

12. Snowcap. It ranges from Honduras to Panama, but is easiest to see in Costa Rica at several, easily accessible sites such as Braulio Carrillo, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and El Copal.

male Snowcap El Copal

Stay tuned for the next dozen or so bird species easier to see when birding Costa Rica than elsewhere!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands

The 2008 OTS La Selva Christmas Count

Through the grimy window of the San Jose- Puerto Viejo bus, I discerned by chance the sign for the OTS La Selva station as another passenger disembarked. I immediately hopped off the bus into the Caribbean lowland night and started up the road to the station. Night in the humid tropics is dark as subterranean velvet. The heavy humidity traps the light just as much as the heat; it’s like walking under a hot, wet blanket that jumps and creeps with life. A flashlight was essential on the pitch black entrance road- not just to see where to walk but also where not to step as I had seen Fer-de-Lance at night along this road on past occasions.

Despite my feelings of consternation blended with excitement, my 20 minute entrance walk was snake-less. I entered the cafeteria/reception area and was greeted by a buzz of activity. The count organizer/coordinator, Rodolfo, was busy with a TV camera crew and several endeavors at the same time so I waited another 20 minutes until he was able to direct me to my bunk and place me with a count group; meeting time an unrespectable 4:30 A.M. (4:30 AM will always be an unrespectable time to be awake, much less walking round). I lucked out with my count territory as it was a trail loop very close to the reception area (others had to bike through the humid darkness to get to their count territories before dawn. Although I still don’t know the name of the trail, I can tell you that it departs from the soccer field and passes through various stages of second growth before reaching the entrance road.

After the few hours of fitful sleep that I get on my first night in humid tropical lowlands, I made it to the reception at 4:30 AM along with 30 other weary-eyed birders. Half-asleep, we ate breakfast, most importantly ingested coffee and tried to figure out if that was a real-time Crested Owl we heard outside of our cabin or a taped recording of someone reeling for a response. Although it turned out to be someone “fishing” for owls, our team recorded a true, countable Crested Owl as one of our first birds. We started out with that and a few other high quality species. Our first was actually Great Potoo. Our leader, Gilberth, knew of a roost near the start of our route and briefly put the light on the bird so we could count it in a sudden glimpse of eyeshine from a large clump of feathers.

This is what it looked like during the day.

Shortly thereafter we got the Owl followed up by a Green Ibis and then started getting other more common pre-dawn birds such as Rufous Motmot and Woodcreepers. As the sun lightened things up, the fun truly started with everything else waking up to shout out their territories; Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Red-throated Ant Tanagers, Red-capped and White-collared Manakins, Broad-billed Motmot, Lineated, Pale-billed and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, various Flycatchers and so on. It was non-stop excellent birding typical of good lowland neotropical habitat all the way to noon. One of our best birds was Bare-crowned Antbird- we heard 2 and saw one of these uncommon skulkers. I wish I had a picture but my camera set-up couldn’t deal with the dark undergrowth. Other nice birds were several Slaty-tailed and Violaceous Trogons, Rufous-tailed Jacamars, good looks at Short-billed and Red-billed Pigeons (the Red-billed being a surprise and reminder of nearby deforestation), Golden-winged Warbler, Rufous Mourner, Blue and Scarlet-thighed Dacnises, Silver-throated and Bay-headed Tanagers, White-ringed Flycatcher and more.

Our most interesting non-bird sighting for me was the Collared Peccary that hid in a culvert and snapped its tusks at us. The TV crew was a pretty interesting sighting was well. They filmed Trogons, Toucans and us birders. They also attempted to interview us; a fruitless endeavor. I mean who has time to do questions and answers during a Christmas count in the tropics? Not me!- I get into my hunter-Zen mode where I allocate more brain space to finding and identifying birds.

The TV crew TV-camera scoping a Toucan through my scope.

Long-tailed Tyrants are pretty common in the Caribbean lowlands.

By noon, we made it to the entrance road and looked for raptors. The more open and higher entrance road is a good spot for soaring birds. Although we missed Black Hawk Eagle, we did alright with Grey Hawk, Double-toothed and Grey-headed Kites and Osprey. We also picked up Thick-billed Seed Finch, Yellow Tyrannulet and a beautiful male Hooded Warbler. On Costa Rica bird counts, wintering Warbler species are the birds that counters really hope for since many species are far less guaranteed than resident, if spectacular, birds such as Jacamars and Trogons.

La Selva is a great place to see Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

After our Hooded Warbler, we had the pleasure of lunching at the cafeteria instead of fending off mosquitoes on a muddy trail while attempting to eat a boxed lunch surprise. Amazingly for a bird count, we even rested in comfy chairs at the reception before doing our afternoon territory. Somewhere around this time we picked up a Green Shrike Vireo (invisibly singing from the canopy as usual), Black-faced Grosbeak, and Rufous-winged, Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers. La Selva is excellent for Woodpeckers. We SAW all 7 species that were possible.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Our afternoon territory was the Arboretum trail.

This is on the other side of the river, accesses beautiful primary forest and (like its name) is an old arboretum. Before entering the trail, we kept busy with birds around the lab buildings. This is an excellent place to bird- you could probably spend a whole day there and get 60-70 species. We had more of the same along with nice looks at..


Collared Aracari

Short-billed Pigeon

Giant Cowbird and Golden-hooded Tanager

and the main reason that La Selva should still be visited on every birding trip to Costa Rica: Great Curassow! For several years, there have been tame Great Curassows frequenting La Selva. Although they can turn up anywhere at this site, they seem to prefer open areas around the buildings! This is like a birding dream come true because this species is very difficult to find elsewhere.

Here is a close up of its head. Check out the curls!

Once inside the forest, birding was another story. Although it is typically quiet inside lowland primary forest, in much of La Selva it has become a little too quiet. Bird species that were common and easier to see here than at other sites such as Great Tinamou, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, White-fronted Nunbird and Black-faced Anthrush, have become very rare. Even Chestnut-backed Antbirds have become uncommon. Most of the understory insectivores are gone too. Nowadays you would be lucky to hear a peep out of Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, understory Flycatchers, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Olive Tanager, and Tawny-crested Tanager. While these species still occur at many other sites, you probably won’t see them at La Selva. Although nobody knows for sure what has happened, and several factors related to edge effects are probably involved, one of the prime culprits is the Collared Peccary.

The theory is that the peccaries are simply gobbling up everything in the undergrowth from ground nesters to the undergrowth itself. I don’t know if anyone has tested this theory but to me, the undergrowth definitely looked overbrowsed. Collared Peccaries have became particulary abundant at La Selva; they seem to be just about everywhere close to the lab buildings. This is not what one typically sees in tropical forest in Costa Rica. Although you run into Peccaries now and then, they are never in the numbers that occur at La Selva. Hopefully studies are being carried out to address this possibility. If there is support for this hypothesis, hopefully OTS will cull peccaries; I know that Dieter and I would be first in line to volunteer.

Despite the birdless understory, we saw some canopy birds and picked up a White-Necked Puffbird customarily perched high up on a snag. We finished the count around 5 P.M., ate dinner and went over the bird list. Best birds of the day were mostly seen by other groups such as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (La Selva still a good site for this tough species), Sungrebe, Snowy Cotinga, Great Green Macaw (we got these too), and best of all; Solitary Eagle! Although this last one is rare and tough to ID, the description sounded very convincing.

One of the best things about the count is that you have access to the grounds the following morning! I birded for a few hours and got more shots of the Curassow, got nice looks at Semiplumbeous Hawk, more of the same from the previous day and excellent looks at Yellow-tailed Oriole singing from a tree top next to the HQ. We missed this rare species in our territory during the count as well as some others (Great Antshrike and Slaty Spinetail) that have become rarer as the forest has grown up along the entrance road. Nevertheless, the entrance road is still great birding and I kept seeing so many birds on my way out that I almost missed my 11 AM bus back to San Jose.