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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley feeders Introduction middle elevations sites for day trips

Where to see Red-headed Barbets when birding Costa Rica: Kiri Lodge

Kiri Lodge. I don’t know about other people, but when I hear the word “lodge” I get these images and visions of a spacious cabin built of massive logs- something like Paul Bunyon’s mansion that could only have been constructed with old growth trees he himself cut down along with the profits he reaped from his mutant-like tree cutting prowess. The ceilings stretch up into the shadows and a permanently lit and crackling fireplace keeps the place as cozy as Grandma Bunyon’s on Thanksgiving. All the chairs are comfortable, a few heads of unfortunate herbivores hang from the walls, the air is consistently scented with apple pie, gingersnaps, or some other smell that one commonly associates with pot-pourri aisles in large, all purpose stores that could be the bane of modern civilization, AND all of the guests sport very comfortable smoking jackets even though they don’t smoke.

I would be surprised if I came across a “lodge” like this when birding Costa Rica (or anywhere on Earth) and am happy to report that Kiri Lodge soundly trounces my mental imagery with a better reality. Situated just outside of Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica, Kiri is essentially a small hotel with an extreme fondness for trout. Honestly, all it takes is one look at the menu in their small restaurant to see that these people love Rainbow Trout (or at least love to prepare them in a dozen different ways) so much that little else appears to be offered. The trout ponds out back are proudly advertised, visitors are encouraged to check out the fish, and it is hoped that you will catch some for your dinner at the restaurant.

The Kiri Lodge people are friendly enough to still serve you with a smile even if you don’t like trout and opt for fried chicken or a beef “casado” (a “casado” is an all purpose standard, tasty meal that usually consists of rice, beans, plantain, salad, vegetable, and beef, chicken, or fish).  For the birder, of far more importance than their penchant for trout is their friendly attitude about birds. They demonstrate this with hummingbird feeders and a fantastic bird-feeding table.

Because there are only two of them, the hummingbird feeders aren’t as buzzing with glittering and pugnacious activity as some other sites but if you watch long enough, Green-crowned Brilliants, Violet Sabrewings, and the local specialty known as the White-bellied Mountain-Gem will make appearances. Far better, however, is the feeding platform.

birding Costa Rica

The platform as it looked from my seat in the restaurant. If you look close you might make out Blue-gray tanagers (the blue bits), Clay-colored Robins (the clay bits), and a Great Kiskadee (the great yellow thing).

Costa Rica birding

And here is what it looked like through the scope.

While my birding friend Susan and I waited for our annual allotment of fried chicken accompanied by greasy fries, we were entertained by at least 10 species of birds that went nuts over chunks of papaya and huge, ripe plantains. The most common was Silver-throated Tanager.

birding Costa Rica

Commonly seen in middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica, Silver-throated Tanagers are still best enjoyed up close at feeding tables.

Predominantly yellow, numerous, and smaller than other partakers of the papaya, these were kind of like the goldfinches of the bunch. They stayed out of the way of hungry Clay-colored Thrushes but still shared the table with them.

birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s national bird getting ravenous with the papaya. Look how “long-headed” and curve-billed it looks compared to an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.

When the Melodious Blackbird made an appearance, though, the Silver-throated Tanagers positively scattered and even the Clay-colored Thrushes left the table. Considering the pointed bill, hefty size, and scary demeanor, who can blame them.

Costa Rica birding

A Melodious Blackbird looking threatening.

birding Costa Rica

Only the rough and tumble Great Kiskadee held its ground against the blackbird.

Luckily for the birds (and us), the Melodious Blackbird was content with spending only as much time on the table as it took to wolf down a few choice chunks of papaya. Otherwise we may not have seen smaller and more brightly colored Baltimore Orioles,

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

a handsome Black-cowled Oriole,

birding Costa Rica

nor oohed and aahed over the sky blue of Blue-gray Tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

If that blackbird hadn’t left, we might have also missed the clownish king of the bird feeding show; the Red-headed Barbet. As befits such a spectacular bird species, it only showed up after most of the other birds had made an appearance and even then hopped down to the side of the platform and scowled as if in disdain at having to share the table with such commoner things.

birding Costa Rica

“Egads! Why do I lower myself to share space with these Silver-throated Tanagers and dingy Clay-colored Robins!”

birding Costa Rica

“I mean just look at that thrush! Must they always be so maniacal when presented with an abundance of fruit?”

birding Costa Rica

“Their class-less behavior makes me want to look away in disgust!”

birding Costa Rica

“Keep your distance dirt colored heathen or I shall give thee a wallop with my stout bill”!

We also saw Red-headed Barbets in Tapanti that same morning but it’s always nice to casually get fantastic looks at such a funky looking bird while sitting down to lunch at such a birder friendly restaurant as that of Kiri Lodge.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley middle elevations

Tapanti National Park- good, middle elevation birding in Costa Rica

During my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I visited Tapanti for a day. Back then it had wildlife refuge status and had a cheaper entrance fee but not much else has changed since then-and that’s a good thing! On subsequent trips, including a day and a half of guiding I did there recently, I still feel impressed with the birding in Tapanti and still get excited about visiting this easy to bird national park. The amazing profusion of epiphytic growth (including many orchids), the general appearance of the forest, the scented air, and certain species such as Streaked Xenops, a few foliage-gleaners, and other birds being easier to find here than other sites in Costa Rica all remind me of Andean cloud forests more than anyplace else in Costa Rica.

Birding in Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica.

A visit to Tapanti always turns up something good or at the least you can get nice, close looks at a variety of bird species. Another thing I like about it is that one can easily bird from the main road and see just about everything. For the adventurous, there are a few steep, difficult trails that access the forest interior while those who need an easier trail can bird along a short loop that parallels the river (and is very good for American Dipper).

The main place to stay near the park is Kiri Lodge. The friendly owners have a restaurant (fairly limited menu), trout ponds, and small cabinas ($45 for a double).

Vegetation at Kiri.

On our recent trip to Kiri Lodge and Tapanti, being the rainy month of November and the wettest area in Costa Rica, we weren’t surprised to be greeted by a saturating, misty downpour. The nice thing about Kiri Lodge was that we could bird from beneath the shelter of the open air restaurant and picnic areas near the trout ponds. One of the most common hummingbirds was Violet Sabrewing- a few of these spectacular, large, purple hummingbirds made frequent visits to banana plants and heliconias near the lodge.

Birds in areas of high rainfall aren’t all that bothered by precicipation. In fact, the birding is usually better when it’s raining on and off, during light rain, or in overcast weather, than on beautiful, sunny days. On our first day at Kiri and Tapanti, the light rain and heavy overcast skies kept the birds active all day long. In the second growth habitats around Kiri Lodge we were kept busy watching common, edge species as well as middle elevation species such as Red-headed Barbet, Blue-hooded Euphonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulet were also common around the trout ponds.

Great Kiskadee in the rain.

Black Phoebe.

Of interest were flocks of Red-billed Pigeons that were zipping around the regenerating hillsides to feast on fruiting Inga trees, flocks of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas flying high overhead as they transited between the forested ridge tops, and one Lesser Elaenia seen (an uncommon, local species in Costa Rica). The best birds though, were in the national park. Just after entering, we were greeted by a calling Ornate Hawk Eagle. After playing hide and seek with it in the canopy for 15 minutes, the adult eagle came out into the open and flew overhead for perfect looks. Around the same time, the rain stopped and bird activity picked up tremendously. Although we didn’t see any really rare species, the number of birds and great looks made up for that. We could barely take a step without seeing something- our first bird being Golden-bellied Fycatcher.

Shortly thereafter, we had Golden-Olive Woodpecker, a beautiful Collared Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, loads of common Bush and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Black-faced Solitaires feeding on white, roadside berries, Red-faced Spinetails, Slate-throated Redstart, Tropical Parulas,

Tropical Parula

and migrant warblers such as Black-throated green, Black and white, Blackburnian, and Golden-winged.

We also managed glimpses at three hummingbirds more often seen at Tapanti than other sites in Costa Rica; Green-fronted Lancebill (at least 5), White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied.

The following day was a total contrast with sunny weather and much less activity. Our efforts at chancing upon an antpitta or Lanceolated Monklet along the easy loop trail went without reward although we did see such species as Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, American Dipper, and White-throated Spadebill, and heard Immaculate Antbird.

Quiet birding but great scenery!

Although in being such an easy, beautiful escape from the urbanized Central Valley, Tapanti can get somewhat  crowded on weekends, in my opinion, the excellent forests and perfect climate of this national park always make a visit worthwhile. The only problem is that it’s rather costly to get there without your own vehicle as one has to take a $15-$20 taxi from Orosi. The walk isn’t too bad though if you don’t mind hiking through shaded and semi-shaded coffee plantations for about 9 kilometers.

One of my hopes is to eventually have more free time to visit Tapanti more often as it always has surprises in store for the visiting birder. On a side note, the butterflying is probably also the best I have seen in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica feeders Introduction

Costa Rica Feeder Birds

Feeders; what a great way to bring the birds to YOU, to see them up close from your nest instead of searching for theirs. Place that cornucopia of bird food strategically and you can watch the birds eat breakfast while you eat breakfast. When you get home from work, you can tune into the feeder instead of zoning out to the TV. Heck, it’s your home; if you feel like it, dress in tweed and pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, invite a friend to be Watson and solve bird ID quandaries; “No, you haven’t seen an Ivory-billed at the feeder; that is a Pileated my dear Watson” (you could also do this on field trips but unless it’s Halloween or you despise networking I wouldn’t advise it).

Watch your trusty feeder to get inspiration from Cardinals, Goldfinches, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, and Mourning Doves (yes this species CAN generate inspiration…although mostly when they get wacked by Cooper’s Hawks). I admit some feeders have a hard time at being inspirational; I know this from personal experience. I watched our family feeder as a kid in downtown Niagara Falls and to risk being called close-minded, it pretty much sucked. The few highlights at our feeder were rare visits by Downy Woodpecker and Song Sparrow. I wondered where all the Goldfinches, Grosbeaks, Redpolls and other cool birds were and eventually learned two main things from my first bird-feeder:

1.) That my backyard had an unholy affinity for Pigeons, Starlings and House Sparrows and 2.) I had to search for the “cool” birds elsewhere. I eventually found those “cool” birds and ended up in a country with a huge variety of very cool birds; Costa Rica. Here, I never have to be concerned about a trio of invasives being the only stars in the backyard bird show. Exotic bird families show up and species differ by location, elevation and feeder food offered. For the most part, fruit is used instead of seeds; papayas, ripe plantains and bananas. In fact, with feeders in Costa Rica, you almost want to go out there and feed with the birds. Birds like….

that most versatile of flycatchers, the Great Kiskadee.

These guys will eat just about anything and are far from shy; kind of like the “Blue Jay” of Costa Rican feeder birds. This one is choking down a lizard.

Blue Gray Tanagers are standard. Locals called them “Viudas” which means “Widows”. This is a true Tico entymological mystery because Tica widows don’t wear blue. One would have expected Groove-billed Anis to have this monniker but they are called “Tijos” after their call.

Instead of House Sparrows (which seem to be restricted to gas stations and MacDonalds, go figure), we’ve got Rufous-collared Sparrows. This one was at one of the only seed feeders I have seen in Costa Rica; at the Noche Buena restaurant high up on Irazu Volcano.

The common backyard finch in much of Costa Rica is the Grayish Saltator. Their finchy song can be heard all over town but they can be kind of skulky.

Clay-colored Robins, the national bird of Costa Rica are faithful feeder visitors.

Summer Tanager shows up at fruit feeders all over Costa Rica. This species has to be one of the most common wintering birds.

Another very common wintering species that loves the fruit is Baltimore Oriole.

One of the only warblers that will visit a fruit feeder is the Tennessee Warbler.

In the Caribbean lowlands, the resident oriole species is the Black-cowled. It also takes advantage of fruit feeders.

As do striking Passerini’s Tanagers

Feeders near cloud forest attract some seriously mind blowing birds. Some of the best feeders were located in Cinchona; a town tragically destroyed by the January 8, 2009 earthquake. The following images of some downright clownlike birds were taken there.

Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet,

Red-headed Barbet – check out the blue cheeks on this female

Prong-billed Barbet

Silver-throated Tanager

And Crimson-collared Tanager

The hummingbird feeders in Costa Rica are also  fantastic; so fantastic though, that I think they merit their own, separate post.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Costa Rica common birds #1: city birds

Costa Rica really is a birding paradise. At least five distinct bioregions and/or major habitat types are found within 2-3 hours drive of San Jose; all with fairly different sets of birds. It’s a good thing they are close to San Jose too because unfortunately, there’s not a huge number of species around here! Around here means where I live; Tibas. Tibas is like much of the central valley- urbanized, asphalted and missing the exuberant vegetation that used to be here. Lack of green space in the central valley is a topic I hope to cover on another day though because this post is the first of several about the common birds of Costa Rica.

The bird species in Tibas represent many of the first birds I saw in Costa Rica back in 1992 and will probably be some of the first species you see as well. Essentially garden and backyard birds of the central valley, they have adapted to living within a human dominated landscape. Although surely a far cry from the variety and types of species that inhabited the marshes and moist forest of pre-settlement times, there’s still some nice birds around. The common sparrow here is Rufous-collared Sparrow.

My first bird book was the Audubon guide to birds; Eastern Region. The fact that photos were used made amazing things such as Cerulean Warbler, Cedar Waxwing and Rails more credible. I first learned about Blue-Grey Tanagers on the glossy plates of that book; learned that in the U.S. they only occurred as an exotic escape in Florida. Here in Costa Rica, these natives are one of the most common bird species.

Possibly occupying a niche similar to that of Northern Cardinals, Greyish Saltators sing every morning from backyards throughout San Jose.

Doves are especially common. Although Rock Pigeons occur, White-winged and Inca Doves are the most common species.

Red-billed Pigeons can also be seen.

One of the coolest common species is Crimson-fronted Parakeet. Noisy flocks roost in the palms near our place and are often seen in flight within the city.

One of the most abundant birds is Great-tailed Grackle. They make a tremendous amount of noise in town plazas where they go to roost.

Conspicuous Flycatchers are always around such as

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

and Tropical Kingbird. If there is a neotropical trash bird, the TK is it.

Clay-colored Robin (the national bird of Costa Rica) is very common.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is pretty much the de-facto Hummingbird of urban areas.

Some of the other bird species common in urban areas of the central valley for which I still lack images are: Black and Turkey Vultures- always up there soaring around.

Tropical Screech Owl- hope to get shots of the pair that roosts at the nearby Bougainvilla Hotel.

White-colloared and Vaux’s Swifts

Hoffman’s Woodpecker- very common

Yellow-belied Elaenia

Blue and white Swallow- one of the most birds in San Jose

Brown Jay- seems to have declined with urbanized growth.

House Wren

Wintering birds such as Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole and Tennessee Warbler

and Bronzed Cowbird.