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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.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Birding the La Selva entrance road, Costa Rica

The OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) station, “La Selva” is one of the most famous research centers for studying tropical ecosystems in the world. It is located near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui in the north Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica and protects 1,600 hectares (3,900 acres)of primary and secondary lowland forest. With so much of the lowlands already deforested and La Selva a 2 hour drive from San Jose, its lowland rain forests are also some of the most accessible in Costa Rica.

Being that it is a research station first, ecotourism site second, they charge an entrance fee that unfortunately isn’t as low as its elevation. It costs over $30 for a guided walk (guide necessary), more for overnight stays. At least early birding walks are offered and the guides are top notch. Meals are pretty costly though especially for being quite basic ($12 for lunch!). Most unfortunately, the rates are the same for Costa Rican residents. Since the average wage in Costa Ricais far less than wages of most visitors, guess who has little incentive to visit La Selva and learn about the wonders of the rain forest? Guess who is more likely to continue with beliefs that rain forest, although pretty useless, is for some weird reason valuable to rich foreigners? I am guessing and hoping that OTS probably has a community outreach program with free guided visits for local school groups. If they don’t, they better start since it is the local people who ultimately decide how natural resources are preserved, used, or obliterated.


Oh yes, since this post is supposed to be about birding the entrance road, though, I better start writing about that! If you don’t want to bird the reserve proper, people in the past have often had good birding along the access road. I visited the road for a few hours last week and the birding is not just good; it has improved! I saw more forest based species than in the past; especially in the vicinity of the stream crossing. Activity was good all morning (I recorded nearly 80 species) and I hope to get back there soon- not just because I love a morning of good birding but also because workers were building what looked like a kiosk just past the entrance to the road. I won’t be surprised at all if this structure ends up being something to control access to the entrance road itself which will probably mean goodbye to the good birding there unless you want to pay an exhorbitant entrance fee. I will keep readers posted about that. Meanwhile, enjoy these pics of the fine morning I had along the La Selva entrance road:

The view of a road with great tropical birding

Grey-capped Flycatchers are a common sight in the humid lowlands.

One usually sees Plain-brown Woodcreepers at antswarms. Woodcreepers are actually not that toigh to ID if you get a good look at the head. Note the straight bill and near lack of markings on Plain-brown. Got lucky with this at the stream crossing along with…

Black-throated Trogon,

a beautiful Broad-billed Motmot,

and best of all, Rufous-winged Woodpecker!

The Woodpecker is a pretty uncommon sight. I also had flyover Double-toothed Kite, a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks and several Ospreys steadily flapping their way southeast towards the same place I would go for winter; the Caribbean.

Other highlights and interesting sightings were Pied Puffbird calling across from the bus stop, flyover Brown-hooded Parrots, good looks at lots of Yellow Tyrannulets, both Yellow-Olive and Yellow-Margined Flycatchers, Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

very close looks at Cinnamon Becard

and a big flock of both Oropendola species rummaging through and ravaging the bromeliads and foliage in their search for arthropodic delights.

Sightings weren’t just limited to birds; I also saw this Two-toed Sloth,

and Green Iguana as well as Howler Monkeys.

Like I said, I hope to get back there soon!