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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds

Four Common Black Birds of Costa Rica

Up north in the temperate zone, black birds are a common part of the avian landscape.  In North America,  American Crows and  Common Grackles are some of the most frequently seen bird species in many areas. Birders in Europe can hardly miss seeing Rooks, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, and Blackbirds (a thrush). In Costa Rica, there aren’t any crows. Instead, there are birds that occupy similar niches (Brown Jays and Great-tailed Grackles), and birds that are crow-sized and somewhat shaped like crows (oropendolas).

When birding Costa Rica, birders will also see plenty of four species with black plumage. These four bird species are the Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Groove-billed Ani, and Melodious Blackbird. All are common edge species of lowland and middle elevations that make their home in deforested areas and often live around towns. Although their black plumages are fairly similar, they have different shapes that help with their identification.

Since they occur in so many places, I won’t even say where you can see them when birding Costa Rica. I will talk about their identification, though, because a number of birders seem to have trouble in separating them.

1. The first on our list is often the first bird that people see in Costa Rica upon exiting the airport- the Great-tailed Grackle. This large, noisy bird has become amazingly adapted to living with people. A scavenger and opportunist of beaches, riversides, and wetlands, urban environments apparently mimic these open habitats because Great-tailed Grackles seem to be right at home as they forage on city streets, pick at garbage, and sing crazy songs from trees in a busy park. A large, black bird with a long, wedge-shaped tail seen when birding Costa Rica will be the male of this common species.

Male Great-tailed Grackles can look kind of nice at close range.
Quoth the Grackle..."Got any garbage"?

2. Melodious Blackbird. I wouldn’t call their vocalization melodious, but they are pretty darn vocal. Birders will hear their ringing song in most deforested areas of the country. This is pretty impressive considering that the Melodious Blackbird entered Costa Rica from Nicaragua only since the 1980s. This common, black-plumaged bird has a very generic bird shape. They sometimes occur in flocks but are most often seen as pairs perched together at the top of a tree in edge habitats. An American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird sized, all black bird with a medium length tail, flat head, and longish beak seen when birding Costa Rica will almost certainly be this species.

Click here to listen to one of its vocalizations:

Melodious Blackbird

Melodious Blackbird- a good bird to know when birding Costa Rica because you will see them all over the place.

3. Bronzed Cowbird. With deforestation, this has become a very common bird species in Costa Rica. Like its northern cousin with the brown head, the Bronzed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of a number of other birds. Unlike the Brown-headed Cowbird, few studies have been carried out to ascertain how its nesting behavior affects local bird species. When birding Costa Rica, if you see a small group of dark birds in flight that resemble “winter finches”, you have seen Bronzed Cowbirds. Their dumpy body and shortish bill gives them this finch-like appearance. When seen close up, they look kind of cool with that red eye.

My cool, red eyes are on the lookout for cows and unguarded nests.

4. Groove-billed Ani. The Smooth-billed is also pretty common in southwestern Costa Rica (and replaces the Groove-billed there), but the Groove-billed Ani is the one encountered the most because it has a larger range. These animated cuckoos are always fun to watch with their odd, parrot-like bills, short wings, long tails, and interesting social behavior. If you catch them in good light, their plumage can also show beautiful greenish and blueish iridescence. Similar in size and shape to the Great-tailed Grackle, Groove-billed Anis have shorter wings, are lankier, and have that short, arched bill.

Not all birds in Costa Rica look as exotic as quetzals or bellbirds but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch them when birding Costa Rica. The birds talked about above are so common that it will be tough not to watch them.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Introduction Pacific slope

Birding the University of Peace, Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clay-colored Robin pretending to be an antbird.

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

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

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

The overlook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction mangroves

Birding Tambor Beach(not Barcelo) and the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry

During our recent first family trip to Tambor (see previous post for all logistics) I also got in a good amount of birding. To be accurate, it was “digiscoping”, not birding. Although the two endeavors are similar, they are not the same.

When “birding”, I concentrate on looking for, identifying and studying all birds in a given area.

When “digiscoping”, I also concentrate on looking for and identifying birds, but focus on certain species and lighting situations likely to result in better photos.

On this trip, I decided to focus entirely on digiscoping, even leaving my binos at home. Although the binos would have been far better for the ferry (where digiscoping was impossible but the birding good), I still did OK looking for birds with my scope.

On the 5 AM ferry to Paquera, we saw very few birds as it was too early. Even at the Guayaba island sea stack, there were few birds flying around while in the day they are quite active with Mag. Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies for the most part. It’s probably worth scoping this sea stack for rarities.

The ferry on the way back was when I missed my binos! Birds were fairly active under overcast skies that eventually spat down rain halfway through the trip. A scattering of Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans were present as we left the Paquera dock. The further out we went, I started seeing more and more Black Terns. Groups of  6 or so flew by the boat again and again until they turned into feeding flocks of dozens and dozens. It was at this point when I began to see a few other species too. A few Common terns were with them while an occasional Brown Booby flapped by. I managed to scope a Sooty Shearwater sharing a  driftwood perch with a smaller Black Tern. My best bird was my only lifer of the trip and one I had hoped for; While scoping through the flocks of Black Terns, I got onto an all dark bird flying low over the water. I immediately knew that I had a Storm Petrel! The two most likely species in the Nicoya gulf are Black and Least. Although I couldn’t see the shape of the tail, this bird was smaller than the nearby Black Terns and flew with quick, snappy wing beats. Since Black SP is about about the same size as the Terns, I got my lifer LEAST STORM PETREL! -On a side note, lifers will from now on be given capital letter status.

A brief 5 second look of a small, all dark bird zipping by and no one on that ferry had any idea of what I had just personally accomplished- lifer number 2527 caught on the fly because I kept scoping the waves despite spitting rain and pitching boat. The bird had accomplished quite a feat too; migrating from a cluster of rocks off of southern California to Costa Rica, avoiding 1000s of voracious Gulls, Jaegers and who knows what else along the way. The Skutch and Stiles guide says that Least Storm Petrel is common in the Nicoya gulf. Well, maybe they are further out, but that is the only one I have ever seen after several ferry crossings.

At Tambor itself, (the village, not the big Barcelo resort), we stayed at Cabinas Bosque. Birding around the Cabinas was fair with good looks at Green-breasted Mangos. The Nicoya Peninsula is probably the best area for this species in CR. Most were staying high up, hawking for insects. Luckily, my wife spotted this juvenile which favored a low perch.

immature Green-breasted Mango

A Common Black Hawk hung out in the backyard.

As did the most common Woodpecker in CR; Hoffman’s. Yes, looks and sounds a lot like a Golden-fronted.

Spishing often brings in wintering Warblers. Northern Waterthrush is very common in wet lowland thickets and mangroves. Prothonotary Warblers are also very common in mangroves but I only got shots of this Waterthrush.

A good birding road and path is at the first right after the Cabinas Bosque, heading towards Paquera.  Staying straight on the road will take you to a path that leads through mangroves and to the beach. I spent most of my time along this road with good results.

Beautiful Orange-fronted Parakeets were pretty common.

So were White-fronted Parrots like the one below although I couldn’t get a shot of one in good light. I also had Orange-chinned Parakeets, Red-lored Parrots and even heard Scarlet Macaw near the mangroves!

Dove diversity was especially high with 7 species recorded. Here is a pair of Common Ground Doves.

This was a good area to see common, second growth species such as Barred Antshrike.

Rufous-naped Wren,

White-tipped Dove quick stepping it across a road,

And witch-like Groove-billed Anis showing off.

Near the mangroves, I was surprised to get excellent looks at Mangrove Cuckoo!

and Northern Scrub Flycatcher- note the stubby bill.

Got nice looks at Green Kingfisher too.

At the lagoon near the beach, there were a few Herons such as this Little Blue.

Always nice to see Whimbrel; a common wintering shorebird in CR.

Other species recorded around Tambor were: Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green-backed Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Black and Turkey Vultures, Crested Caracara, Osprey, Roadside Hawk, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Wilson’s Plover, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged, Ruddy-ground and Mourning Doves, Pauraque, Cinnamon and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-headed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-Olive Fly., Common Tody Fly., Wood Peewee sp., Scissor-tailed Fly., Great-crested and Dusky-capped Flys., Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social Flys., Rose-throated Becard, Mangrove Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Barn Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Banded and House Wrens, Clay-colored Robin (not so common here!), Tenn., Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-grey, Palm and Summer Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Euphonia.