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Birding Forest Fragments of the Caribbean Lowlands

In the not very distant past of Costa Rica, all of the other side of the mountains was cloaked in dense forest. The cloud forests of the highlands merged into eternally wet and mossy foothill forest and then became majestic lowland rainforest that swept across the rolling ground all the way to the coast. The lowlands might be flatter than the naturally broken highlands but it was never parking lot flat. The waterways still managed to break the ground and produce a mosaic of hills and low lying areas where rivers still run, streams flow, and swamps do their aquatic ruminating thing. These factors in turn produce a greater array of microhabitats where Northern Bentbills buzz from the vine-tangled gaps, where motmots make their burrow nests on steep slopes above the creeks, and where Agami Herons creep around the low, wet places.

Now, it’s very different. Well, at least what grows on the land is vastly different from what was there for thousands of years. The form of the land is still pretty much the same but many of the trees (especially the big old ones) have been cut down and the flattest places now host sugar cane, pineapples, bananas, or cattle. The biodiversity is drastically less, who knows which plants and insects have gone extinct or are close to becoming effectively doomed because remnant trees can’t be pollinated or produce seedlings that grow enough to produce their own offspring. That said, the northern lowlands of Costa Rica aren’t entirely shorn of trees. There are still quite a few growing in pastures and along riparian zones, and there are a few patches of forest here and there. Things grow with a quickness in the wet tropics, there’s still hope for reforestation, to reconnect and grow at least some patches of forest.

I was birding in one of those remnant forested spots this past weekend during a visit to the San Carlos area of Costa Rica. At a small comunal reserve known as “Juanilama”, Marilen and I had a taste of what can still occur in forest fragments in Costa Rica. Some observations:

A good number of birds

During a brief two hour visit, we had more than 80 species including standouts like a pair of Great Green Macaws, Pied Puffbird, and Royal Flycatcher.

But not like the complex array of life that is a larger area of mature forest

Juanilama did have some nice big trees here and there but just not enough habitat to support more specialized frugivores like Snowy Cotinga and Purple-throated Fruitcrow. Nor was there enough habitat for most of the understory insectivores or raptors. Basically, this is because those birds are more adapted to larger areas of mature forest, they are acting players, working parts in the mature forest ecosystem. They just aren’t a part of, can’t play a role in other forest community games.

Some migrants

The main reason we birded Juanilama was twofold; the place is close to where Mary’s family lives, and it being migration season, I figured we had a chance at Veery and some other nice year birds. Although that wasn’t the case on Sunday morning, we still managed to see a couple warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, and Scarlet Tanager.

More birding outside the reserve

I found the surrounding countryside especially interesting in that more trees were present than I had expected. We didn’t see too much but still had a fair number of species including White-winged Becard, Laughing Falcon, and toucans. Although these were the expected species that can survive in some edge situations, we still had birds we could watch.

Some questions

While birding that morning, I wondered about a thing or two, things that could act as research projects. Like, how important is a forest patch like Juanilama for migrants? Are there more than in riparian zones and other nearby edge habitats? Is there more or less competition with resident species in edge habitats? Does Middle American Screech-owl occur? How about other owls and do those owls limit the occurrence of the screech-owl? Did Harpy Eagles prefer to nest on some of the hill tops near there? How about Orange-breasted Falcon (along with the eternal question of why populations of this Neotropic raptor are so limited and localized)? These are the sort of things that can run through your head when the bird activity drops and is replaced by the snoring of cicadas and buzzing of mosquitoes.

No Mississippi Kite nor other year birds on Sunday but at least we did connect with our 2019 Baird’s Sandpiper the previous morning. There were a few in a nearby temporary mudflat. They were feeding a bit like dowitchers, we had great looks, it was and is cool to contemplate the Arctic-Costa Rica-South American connections made by this amazing migrant. Still hoping for cuckoos near the homestead or an Upland to call at night. I wonder what will be next for the year list of TeamTyto?

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope

Easy, Great Caribbean Lowland Birding in Costa Rica at El Gavilan Hotel

A lot of birders automatically assume that they have to stay at La Selva when birding the Caribbean lowlands near San Jose. Although that was probably true 30 years ago, birders have had their pick of accommodations ranging from Bed and Breakfasts to full scale eco-lodges since the early 90s. Although you can still stay at La Selva, it’s not a requisite for getting in some great Caribbean lowland birding. In fact, I always tell birders that they are better off staying outside of the biological station and signing up for the early morning birding tour than staying at the station itself.

No doubt, some who are reading this may be thinking that, “What?! Not stay at La Selva? You must be joking!”

Yes, that’s right, no laughter, and no stay at La Selva. The reasons why I don’t feel that you absolutely need to stay at La Selva are:

1. Cost: Staying there is expensive and the cafeteria fare isn’t exactly a taste tingling experience either. You get better value for your bucks at true hotels and restaurants outside of the station.

2. Birding: Strange to say that but you can see the same birds and more by combining a visit to La Selva with other sites in the area. The birding at La Selva is still a great experience but it’s not the fantastic birding that it used to be. Nunbirds are now very rare at best (used to be common), many understory insectivores have become very rare or disappeared, and most terrestrial species have become much less common due to an overabundance of Collared Peccaries.

3. The early morning birding tour: Although I know some people who have run into problems in taking this tour (certain guide promised and didn’t show up or they were put with people on a regular tour), I still think it’s worth it to do this one. Although staying there gives you access to the trails on your own, you still might not find the fruitcrows, the roosting potoo, the umbrellabird, or other goodies on your own. Guides on the early morning bird tour, however, will probably bring you to those and other specialties. Just make sure to sign up for this in advance.

The other main reason is due to places like El Gavilan.  I like bringing clients to this place simply because it’s so easy to see lots of birds. The lack of extensive primary forest means that many forest understory species are absent (things like tinamous, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, etc.) but the old second growth and old growth riparian forest along the Sarapiqui River kind of makes up for that. Throw in an active fruit feeder and good viewing of fruiting trees and you will be in for some  really easy, quality birding. I was reminded of this during a recent weekend of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. Using El Gavilan as a base, we birded the grounds and trails of that hotel, the edge of La Selva, Chilamate, and hit El Tapir on the way down from San Jose and Quebrada Gonzalez on the way up.

Since El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez deserve their own posts, I’ll just mention that we got Snowcap, saw a bunch if White-necked Jacobins, Brown Violetear, and other hummingbirds at El Tapir, and got Lattice-tailed Trogon, Emerald Tanager, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Spotted Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, and some other goodies at Quebrada Gonzalez.

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The White-whiskered Puffbird must have had a nest nearby.

Down at El Gavilan, large movements of Eastern Kingbirds, Red-Eyed Vireos and several kettles of raptors (TVs, Swainon’s Hawks, and one big flock of Mississippi Kites) kept the binocular action going throughout our stay. The kingbirds would fly in, descend en-masse into a fruiting tree and then zip off to continue their journey north. They shared the fruiting trees with Keel-billed, Black (Chestnut)-mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracaris, and various flycatchers and tanagers. Some of those tanagers came down to the fruit feeder now and then and included:

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Dusky-faced Tanager. This Icteridish species troops through the understory around the hotel and then comes out to the feeder for excellent, close studies.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Shining Honeycreeper. It was very nice to get such close looks at this diminutive jewel without needing to strain our necks by staring up into the canopy.

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Black-cowled Oriole was another species that came to the feeder.

The feeder is in the middle of a courtyard that is also good for watching flyovers of Red-lored, Mealy, and White-crowned Parrots, and Olive-throated and Orange-chinned Parakeets. Great Green Macaw also shows up sometimes although we only saw a pair near La Selva and Chilamate over the course of the weekend. We had great views at plenty of toucans along with

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Short-billed Pigeons

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and Pale-vented Pigeon

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The view of the courtyard at El Gavilan.

The forest birding also turned out to be pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised to see more than one Plain-brown Woodcreeper along with the expected White-collared Manakins, Gray-chested Doves, Bay Wrens, Cinnamon Becards, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Fasciated Antshrike, and Bright-rumped Attila.

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Plain-brown Woodcreeper being shy about its pointy bill.

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a male Red-throated Ant-Tanager– believe me when I say this was a tough photo to get!

Despite checking the river and oxbow creeks several times, I couldn’t find Green Ibis or Sunbittern that are regularly seen there. Nor did we get good looks at species I have seen at El Gavilan in the past like Snowy Cotinga, Black-striped Woodcreeper, or Long-tailed Tyrant. Two of the more uncommon species we did get were Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Bronzy Hermit, and a glimpse of a male Black-crested Coquette. However, the prize for best bird probably goes to Spectacled Owl.

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A pair of Spectacled Owls uses the forest around El Gavilan and are frequently found at one of their roosts. Amazingly, we also flushed one on the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez!

There are several places to stay near La Selva that fit into most budgets. El Gavilan is moderately priced, especially if you get the meal package. If you didn’t want to eat there, you can also dine at restaurants in nearby Puerto Viejo or Chilamate but then you would miss out on meals accompanied by some wonderful feeder action.